High atop a bookcase in a corner of Karl Macrae’s living room sits a wicker jewelry box. The beige and silver box — woven loosely enough for its bendable lid to seal it, yet strong enough for the box to retain its shape — takes on new meaning when you learn that it was made from Camel cigarette packages by Rudy Roybal, a prisoner on Death Row at San Quentin. Macrae, a death penalty opponent with Oakland’s Prison Activist Resource Center, has been visiting Roybal for several years, and the wicker box symbolizes their friendship. As Macrae pulls down his latest gift — a wicker tableau of two rocking chairs at the base of a giant heart — he’s reminded of the comment of a prisoner who handed him this object at the San Quentin gift shop: “It’s amazing what a mind can do in here.”
Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC) has devoted itself to arts campaigns (such as Mumia 911) to free political prisoners and to helping organizations that host prison art shows or distribute prisoner art (such as www.prisonart.org), first as a compiler of these movements and lately as a curator of them. Now its own prisoner art show is opening this month at the Black Box Gallery. PARC is an information hub for those opposed to the prison-industrial complex, with a resource directory that lists hundreds of like-minded groups nationwide, a prisoner support project that fields a hundred inquiries a week, and a Web-based gateway to antiprison agitation — www. prisonactivist.org. PARC serves a wide clientele, from prisoners seeking legal referrals and family members bewildered by their first encounter with prison bureaucracy, to activists from the rural areas where prisons are built. PARC’s efforts to match needs with resources on a national level makes it unique: Each inquiry receives a handwritten response, in part because of local and state prison regulations barring form letters, in part to counter the soul- deadening uniformity of dealing with bureaucracy.
“Art saves people’s sanity in prison,” explains Bo Brown. A former political prisoner, Brown is a member of PARC’s advisory board and has participated in each of its art shows. The first, in 2000, asked artists “on the outside” to look at prisons, and the result — most memorably, a scale model prison with hundreds of miniature figures, all rendered in gray papier-mâché — was heavy on the discipline and punishment. With this month’s show, PARC has come full circle, asking prisoner artists to look outside, and the result is a broader show. “When I was inside, I didn’t draw pictures of prison,” Brown remembers. “I drew pictures of the women around me.”
“It was hard to ask people in prison to imagine a world without prisons,” admits Trinh Le, one of PARC’s two coordinators. Le’s interest in prison work stems from the incarceration of two brothers, one of whom won’t take art classes because they take away from his yard time and cost money for materials. That accounts for the popularity of pencil work, and makes the rare color work more brilliant.
“Imagining a World without Prisons” opens Sunday, November 10, with an event to benefit PARC on Friday, November 15. Scheduled performers include Unified Theory, DJ La Paz, Mindzeye Collective, DJs Christoph, Cynic, B-Real, and Prana; and Molotov Mouths, with speakers Linda Evans, Bo Brown, and Danial Cross of Girls in the Hall. Black Box Gallery, 1928 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. 510-451-1932.