As I walked into a warehouse filled with about 70 replicated prison beds in perfectly straight rows my stomach dropped. I could feel the stripping of one’s individuality, I could feel the dehumanization of the inmates, and I could feel the pain of their loved ones. As I saw the passion, drive, and vision of about seventy activists, I became optimistic. Jail Bed Drop was a countywide art installation organized by Justice LA, an organization that is currently fighting LA County’s 3.5 billion dollar jail expansion plan. On December 24th, 2017 over 50 artists dropped replicated jail beds in different cities within Los Angeles County. The artist did various things with the beds such as crafting visual art pieces, hosting picnics where people wrote letters to inmates, and as myself and my collaborator, Jermey Grandberry did create a performance art piece. We displayed our installation at Manhattan Village shopping plaza in Manhattan Beach, CA. Manhattan Beach, CA is an affluent area made up of 82 percent of white people. Manhattan Beach was our target population because this demographic of people is less likely to be directly impacted by mass incarceration. We performed in a busy walkway where people were walking and driving. Our piece disrupted the routines of the individuals who shop at the plaza, informed them of LA County’s jail plan, offered them an alternate way to use the money, and provided statistics to support our alternative plan. We wanted to challenge those passing to see inmates as themselves through images we created with our bodies and the frame of the bed. We removed the wooden planks that were the slats of the bed and placed them against the wall and used them to write on. The frame of the bed symbolized how the structure of the prison system plays a significant role in the US economy, education system, and the enslavement/oppression of back and brown people. We dressed in fashionable, relatable, and attention-grabbing clothes to humanize inmates and draw in our audience. For an hour and twenty minutes, we created uncomfortable and everyday-like shapes and postures in the frame of the bed while taking turns writing different statistics on the plank of wood. These shapes were to show confinement, invisibilization, dehumanization, and discomfort. We repeated gestures throughout the piece that physically said “Can you see me?” and “I am you, and you are me.” Silently making a political statement in a public space was uncomfortable for people because it was disruptive, yet silent. It didn’t tell people something was right or wrong, but it provided information with visuals of 2,300,000 peoples reality. What I love about art and activism is that it can allow people to connect to issues on an emotional level. We all might not understand why mass incarceration is an issue, but we can all relate to the feeling of pain. Connecting to the problem at an emotional level first allows people to be less defensive and more open to trying to understand because they can relate to inmates a little more. Culturally we have been socialized to dehumanize inmates and those who have committed crimes. However, when we can see ourselves in others, we can empathize. LA County’s jail plan is not something that will affect LA County it affects the United States as a whole. This money distributed to jail expansion rather than drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health programs, schools, and healthcare is neglecting to address the root of mass incarceration. It only perpetuates the cycle of incarceration for people of color, those experiencing homelessness, and those who are mentally ill. We are all apart and have the power to affect our local and global communities. We ask that you support the initiatives of those working to reform and/or abolish the prison system in your community.
Photography by: Ella Mikayelyan @ellamika_
Collaborator: Jeremy Grandberry @iosonoii