This past August, as I sat in Alcatraz State Prison, I listened to Larry Stiner’s voice reverberating off the art-covered walls as he described in verse his experience growing up with an incarcerated father.
The afternoon marked a rare occurrence. The walls of 165-year-old facility are usually barren, aside from their diverse shades of beige paint. And Larry Stiner doesn’t perform poetry often. But on this occasion the walls were covered in art — framed photos, paintings and drawings – while Larry Stiner spoke his truth to a room of around 70 guests.
Larry was joined on stage by his father Watani Stiner, as well as Troy Williams and Troy’s daughter, Tory. Watani and Troy, both formerly incarcerated at San Quentin, were a part of an arts-in-corrections program there called Brothers In Pen. That organization, sponsored by the William James Association and supported by the National Park Service, put together this family- and art-oriented gathering at Alcatraz.
Between each of Larry's poems, Watani shared a portion of his own life’s story. The duo were still mastering their timing, as it was the first time they performed together. But the message was clear: incarceration impacts more than just the individual, it influences the entire family.
“When I was young, and he was in prison for the first time, that’s what led me to write,” said the younger Stiner, who recalled receiving letters from his father, noting how they pushed him to express himself through prose. “I wanted to emulate him.”
While Larry’s poetry recitation evinced his commitment to the craft, Watani’s testimony proved that he’s been fine-tuning the telling of his life’s story. He told me that he’s currently in the process of writing an autobiographical book—but I think it should be a movie.
Watani and his twin brother were incarcerated for charges related to the killings of two Black Panther leaders, after which they both escaped San Quentin and fled to South America. Watani turned himself in 20 years later; his brother didn’t. Watani served another 20 years, and was released from San Quentin just about three years ago.
There are plenty more details, including the birth of Watani’s other children, a run-in with Jim Jones, and surviving this thing called COINTELPRO. His life is the material screenplays are made of, preferably one in which a young Watani is portrayed by Chadwick Boseman, and Morgan Freeman as the elder. And Watani should write it, because he knows how to write.
Aside from working with Brothers In Pen and sending letters to his family, Watani honed his craft at the San Quentin News, where he wrote a consistent column called “From An OGs Perspective.” (Around that time I was working on a blog called OG Told Me, so you see the natural overlap.)
I’ve followed Watani’s story since meeting him while he was incarcerated in 2013. And since his release, I’ve stayed in contact with him — often discussing community, politics and family. And, of course, writing.
“I continued my writing when I got out, it helped me to get my ideas together,” Watani tells me during a recent phone conversation. “Inside is where the transformation took place,” he says, adding that it was “a way of connecting with my children. The questions they've asked me, I've already explored it in prison.”
When I ask him about the lessons he learned from this writing program, Watani, who favors writing on paper over computers, tells me, “the biggest thing is not throwing things away. But coming back to them and getting a different understanding or conclusion.”
Brothers In Pen writing instructor Zoe Mullery describes the experience as “more like a writing group than a class. People share their work, have dialogue and pushback.” Zoe has been doing this work since 1999; Watani is her student with the second-longest tenure. She says she’s seen firsthand the healing powers of writing: “You end up getting close to people,” she says, “you get to know their stories and see their growth.”
The qualitative impact of arts on the healing process is evident, but it’s proven to be difficult to quantify.
The latest available study on the impact of the arts in California Prisons was conducted five years ago, in 2012 by Dr. Lawrence Brewster of the University of San Francisco. That study, published in 2014, served as a follow-up to his original study on the subject conducted in the 1980s.
Laurie Brooks, Executive Director of the Williams James Association, is currently researching the same impact. “We've been focusing on six theories on behavioral change,” Brooks tells me during a phone call, listing off Cognitive Behavioral, Social Learning, Resilience, Social Capital, Performance, and Desistance.
Brooks is working with the Center for Evidence Based Corrections out of UC Irvine as well as Dr. Brewster, and has held focus groups to interview participants in the class. She hopes to have the study wrapped by the end of the year, when she plans to present it to power holders in the California Prison System “so they can look at the inmates a different way,” she says. “So they have an opportunity for change."
I’ve never been incarcerated, but have had far too many friends and family members thrown into this country’s bastardized prison system, including my own father. I’ve visited these institutions, seen how their bland concrete walls and steel cages have been designed to keep humans from dreaming. I’ve communicated with loved ones, often through letters or phone calls on illegally acquired burner cell phones, and they often speak of their dreams. What they want to do, how they want to drop an album, write poetry, produce films, and in the end, create a better reality for themselves and their families.
As I listened to Larry and Watni Stiner last month, as well as Troy and his daughter Latanya — all of them speaking about how incarceration hurts those inside as well as outside of those bland walls — I clearly heard human beings aspiring to create a better future, despite horrendous things done in the past. What better way to do that than through art?
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland, and a weekly columnist for KQED Arts. Find him on Twitter here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.