Incarcerated Artists Find Success Through Empowerment Avenue
In Field Notes, writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. According to the ACLU, nearly two thirds of incarcerated people in the United States hold jobs in state and federal prisons and produce around $11 billion in goods for a pittance, if any compensation at all. In this Field Note, Amelia Arvesen shows how Empowerment Avenue has been successful in providing better paying jobs for writers and artists currently incarcerated.
08 November, 2023
Editor’s Note: Amelia Arvesen has been a volunteer with Empowerment Avenue since April 2022. She has worked with two writers incarcerated in California and New York, and she curates the group’s monthly newsletter.
When Rahsaan “New York” Thomas was granted commutation and released from San Quentin State Prison in February, he went home in a much different position than the average person. Instead of departing with little cash and half-hearted well wishes, Thomas had enough money in his bank account to buy a Tesla—money he had earned as a professional writer, organizer, and co-founder of an organization called Empowerment Avenue.
Together with journalist Emily Nonko, the two founded the collective in 2020 to compensate incarcerated writers and artists for their contributions to media. They had met a few years prior at an event in San Quentin. Inspired by a friend who had someone on the outside helping him publish stories, Thomas wanted to establish a nationwide support network to help more incarcerated writers and artists like himself disseminate their work through paid opportunities at high-profile outlets. “I was limited to who I could reach with my letters and that wasn’t very many people,” Thomas said.
Today, Empowerment Avenue has two tracks supporting a spectrum of creators in prisons: Writing for Liberation and Visual Arts for Liberation. The collective works with about 50 incarcerated artists and writers, 15 of whom have come home, who have collectively earned $150,000 to date.
By partnering with outside organizers, such as journalists, editors, and art curators, incarcerated writers and artists are getting their pieces published and artwork exhibited in mainstream venues—places that have historically excluded the voices of system-impacted people. Not only that, they’re being compensated for their skills and finally feeling seen. They communicate via snail mail, phone calls, and the prison system’s electronic services.
While incarcerated writers have commonly been confined to writing op-eds and essays, Empowerment Avenue’s network has commissioned the cohort’s investigative reporting. Their bylines have appeared in The Appeal and Type Investigation as well as The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Elle Magazine, The Huffington Post and many other publications. Some of their earliest stories exposed abusive conditions inside prisons during COVID’s onset, and they’re continuing to probe unjust and oppressive policies around solitary confinement, healthcare, and harm reduction.
“These are writers who have not gone to journalism school and are training themselves and doing this level of reporting,” Nonko said. “That’s just such a celebration of the resilience and determination of folks who are like, I am a reporter against all odds.”
Jonathan Kirkpatrick reports on an ongoing basis for Filter Mag. Felix Sitthivong is a columnist for International Examiner. Christopher Blackwell created a mentorship program for budding incarcerated journalists. And Juan Haines launched the Ridgeway Reporting Project with Solitary Watch to offer grants to incarcerated journalists. Members of the cohort are also writing essay collections, book reviews, zines, and more—and winning prizes along the way.
“We’re popping up in places you normally don’t hear from us, and we’re reaching new audiences,” said Thomas, who co-hosts the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast Ear Hustle. “This gives us a chance to affect new hearts, new minds.”
Empowerment Avenue also hosts training sessions for media and arts workers on how to work with incarcerated people, which they’re hoping will deconstruct the stereotypes and restore humanity for this often forgotten population.
On the arts side, Christine Lashaw serves as Empowerment Avenue’s Director of Visual Arts for Liberation (the visual arts track), cultivating curators on the inside and navigating the unique nuances of working with galleries and physical artwork. She met Thomas through the San Quentin Prison Arts Program in 2017, when she was still working at the Oakland Museum of California.
Under the visual arts track, Empowerment Avenue is piloting the Illustrated Photo Project to connect editors with incarcerated illustrators and collect stock illustrations. They recently hosted an Artist Power Convening with support from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Artists have exhibited their work in places like Dream.org’s Black Future Weekend in Miami and My Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, where featured artist Corey Devon Arthur called in from prison to speak to a packed house.
“You don’t need to leave people out because they're in prison,” Lashaw said. “They can be right there in the room participating in the event if you get your technology right and you’re willing to be patient because you understand the importance of it.”
Released from prison this year, Aaron Kinzer said his time with Empowerment Avenue has given his writing direction and intention. “The encouragement to dive head-first into my creative side has enabled me to write with a level of freedom I could never have imagined.”
Paris Whitfield, who is still incarcerated in New York and on a quest for clemency, agrees that freedom takes on new meaning. “I guess, in a way, Empowerment Avenue is a liberating platform that allows how I think about harmful laws/policies to be shaped into words,” they said. “Only then can I contribute to the wider conversation to help others in society to become freer. In that way, I too become freer."
The initiative is not only impacting people on the inside, but affecting a shift in the public conversation on mass incarceration, starting with the program's volunteers.
Adina Solomon, a freelance journalist in Mexico City, got involved three years ago before she knew much about prisons in the U.S. She has since collaborated with two incarcerated writers, one of whom was released from prison after many years, and considers them friends.
“Many of us are fed an idea that people in prison are violent, unthinking, beyond humanity. That isn't true,” Solomon said. “Getting to know people in EA, both on the inside and outside of prison, has changed my thinking and shown me so much more about what happens behind prison walls. Now I try to dismantle these stereotypes when I talk with friends and family.”
Genuine relationships are at the core of this work. To establish an equal power dynamic right off the bat, volunteers are intentionally onboarded as partners instead of mentors. They have as much to learn about the inside world as incarcerated artists have to learn about writing and pitching. Rather than prescribing what someone might need, volunteers are encouraged to listen, support, collaborate, and take cues from their partners.
Those collaborative relationships become all the more vital when someone returns home and needs a job referral, mutual aid to buy a laptop, and a professional support network.
“It’s dignity to just be able to take care of yourself. It’s dignity to come home with a head start instead of wondering how you’re going to make it past the $200 they gave you,” Thomas said. “It just feels really powerful to have a voice.”
Amelia Arvesen is an outdoor recreation journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She is also an organizer with Empowerment Avenue, a group advocating for incarcerated writers and artists. She has a special interest in outdoor businesses, sustainable travel, and criminal justice reform. Her latest work appears in Outside, Adventure.com, Texas Monthly, and Via Magazine.