By Malea Martin
For more than a decade, Studios on the Park in Paso Robles has displayed the work of fine artists. But for its newest exhibit, Justice in Justice—a collection of works centered on America's incarceration system—the nonprofit decided to get a little unconventional.
"What we decided to do was, rather than mostly targeting artists that specialize in this content, we went to people who run organizations that interface with this community on a regular basis, some of whom have supportive arts programs in the prisons," said Henry A.J. Ramos, a founding member of the downtown gallery.
The result is an exhibition showcasing the work of incarcerated individuals and ex-offenders. Ramos, who was closely involved with Justice in Justice's curation, said art can be "a kind of therapeutic, expressive form of recovery for a lot of these individuals as they try to make sense of what's happened in their lives, and how they can go on."
Witnessing the art that incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people are making about their own experiences with our justice system can also help to humanize them to the public, he said.
The exhibit, which opened Sept. 4, will run through Sept. 29. On the opening night, the art was accompanied by a screening of Healing Justice, a documentary that considers how the American justice system disproportionately targets marginalized communities. On Sept. 21, Ramos will moderate a panel discussion affiliated with the exhibition, called "Advancing New Models in Community Violence Prevention and Restorative Justice."
"We want to inspire thought and dialogue around these issues," Ramos said about the panel. "We definitely want to encourage an engagement with community leadership."
Panelists include Dr. Leola Dublin Macmillan, a critical cultural scholar, essayist, and activist; Fred "Bull" Chaney, executive director of Gatehelp Inc.; and Ty Lewis, Paso Robles police chief.
"We want to look at solutions and look at models that are working, that might be adoptable here in our region," Ramos said, "a more humanistic, realistic, and durable way of dealing with these very unfortunate realities of our society."
The head curators of Justice in Justice, Kevin and Heather Mikelonis, hope that the exhibition will open up a conversation around the transactional way in which our justice system currently operates.
"I don't think a lot of people study how the criminal justice system works," Kevin said. "It's so important to know about what's going on so you can vote accordingly and support policies and organizations. ...This is a way to do that on the local level."
Heather emphasized the importance of humanizing incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks through art.
"What happens to people when they're given those opportunities to have proper treatment, guidance, love, and compassion, as opposed to just a punitive, 'You did something wrong, go sit in the corner'?" Heather said. "I firmly believe that we are all humans and all deserve a chance to process through the different problems we've had."
Ramos also emphasized the importance of second chances, as well as rethinking the way we define what's "criminal."
"As things are evolving and our society is moving, things that we accept as being unacceptable or criminal 20 or 30 years ago are now in question," Ramos said. "Cannabis is a really good example. We threw tens of thousands of people in jail for relatively small amounts of cannabis use in the 1980s and 1990s. ... Now, you can go to a store in Grover Beach and you can buy that same substance. It's all legal. We've got to look at some of our assumptions."
Ramos uses the term "restorative justice" to talk about finding ways to help incarcerated people get back on their feet, rather than keeping them in a vicious cycle of recidivism.
"We've seen a real increase of mass incarceration in our society, a lot of it along racial lines, and a lot of it along class lines," Ramos said. "The notion of restorative justice is about saying, 'Let's take a more in-depth, holistic approach to this.'"
In addition to addressing systems of mass incarceration, Ramos says the Justice in Justice exhibit and programming will open up conversations about how to hold our justice system more accountable.
"We've just seen this state of killing, outright killing of people who are stopped for normal, routine traffic stops. That should not be a death sentence," he said. "We have to revisit fundamentally what is going on in our culture, and in our systems of policing that encourage that. ... Those are the kinds of questions we'll be dealing with." Δ