No one knows what changes the mindset of an inmate. Prison is punitive, intended to strip power and deliver pain. But through creativity, Visual Arts professor Sky Glabush has found a way to empower inmates and deliver a bit of compassion into those dark corners.
Earlier this month, Glabush spent a week of his sabbatical in Georgetown, Guyana, helping to pilot a project to bring art to inmates of Timehri and Lusignan Prisons. At its core, the project was about helping inmates overcome the isolation and deprivation that are part of the landscape of prison.
But Glabush brought far more home with him.
“I went into the prison with an idea I had something to teach them about art – but it became obvious, after a few hours with them, that they had much more to teach me. Words can’t describe the brotherhood and love each one of these men demonstrated and the warmth they shared with us visitors.”
In previous work, Glabush has used art as a tool for community-building and working with young people for years, including in the Kipps Lane area of London. A few years ago, he was invited to Guyana by British academic and education advocate Brian O’Toole, who established the School of Nations in that country and “has worked tirelessly to make it one of the best schools in the Caribbean.”
O’Toole is Director of School of the Nations and Nations University in Guyana – thriving private educational institutions that educate students from pre-school up to sixth form college. O’Toole also established the Nations University Research Institute, which conducts research and designs development programs to advance the quality of lives of people around the world.
In January 2019, O’Toole was shot outside his home – a terrifying experience he survived but left one of his arms paralysed.
“Dr. O’Toole is deeply committed to social reform. Despite his trauma, he chose to return to Guyana and use his unwanted celebrity to draw attention to the conditions of Guyana’s justice system and prisons,” Glabush said.
The Nations University Research Institute works with the department of corrections to address some of the chronic issues of the system. After Glabush reached out to O’Toole, he soon found himself in Timehri and Lusignan Prisons earlier this month.
The trip to Guyana was a family affair for Glabush. His step-brother, Karim Rushdy, had already spent a week in the same prisons teaching music and hip-hop; his father, Ted Glabush, traveled with him.
“My father is a carpenter and also an artist. He had lived for two years in Guyana about 30 years ago. When he heard I was going, he asked if he could come. I thought it would be a great experience to do this together – and it was.”
Glabush began his experience at Timehri Prison with 20 inmates who were “quite young and several of them had never been to school and had never made art before.” He began his lesson by comparing a piece of paper to the boxing ring: how the principles of energy, tension, surprise and movement are the same elements and how each contributes to a vital bout or piece of art.
“Over the next few days, there was a good spirit in the air and completed a lot of paintings.”
Some of the men chose to work independently; others took their preliminary sketches and worked with Glabush to make large collaborative paintings. “These are really quite splendid.”
The works will be exhibited at the School of Nations when the new campus is opened; it will be a great opportunity to highlight the program being piloted by the Nations University Research Institute.
His next stop was Lusignan Prison, where the inmates were older and “had pretty much lost everything.” Many serving life sentences, a number of them choose to counter the pains of imprisonment culture with positive actions as part of a program called Prisoners of Hope. They deliberately cultivate an atmosphere of kindness and compassion, Glabush explained.
“The Lusignan group was very receptive to making art and learning new things. At breaks, they sang spiritual songs and I was transported by their voices, calibre and soul.”
Creative activities can lower defenses and express a shared humanity – an almost impossible task within the corridors or in the exercise yard, Glabush stressed.
He continued, “We learned their stories, the details of why they were behind bars, their appeals, their sentences, and all the while, displaying such courage and grace and the desire to make the most of their lives given the circumstances.”
For the next stage of his project, Glabush will train facilitators from Guyana to work directly with the prisons. By participating in art, storytelling, music and theatre, an inmate can reflect and even change the dynamic of incarceration, he explained.
“These activities will strengthen the community these men are starting to build from within.”