Reimagining Justice: A Conversation with Formerly Incarcerated Artists

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Ideas and proposals that once existed at the margins are now central to conversations on criminal justice. Today, we must ask ourselves, "Over the past years of cultural and political reckoning, how has my thinking and practice shifted?"

This panel will explore the US justice system from multiple angles, including but not limited to abolition, advocacy, experience, redemption, diversion, art, gender, community, therapy, healing, and race. These panelists will challenge the audience to look beyond lessons learned and ask new questions, with the goal of encouraging individuals to identify their own limitations and work towards an abolitionist mindset while pushing against the boundaries of practice. In this program, abolition will be defined as the elimination of interrelated systems that deem that some life is not precious and the investment in strategies that allow for a productive and violence-free life. Rather than look at our positions along a spectrum of difference, the panelists will attempt to situate our collective work along a continuum of change. In order to do so we must invite tension so that in our differences we may locate our shared values. The core questions for attendees are quite simple: "What are the questions I’m not asking myself? What questions am I not considering? How do I show up?"

Jay Darden, Artist and Curator, Escaping Time
Karen Thomas, Artist, Escaping Time
Reverend Isaac Scott, Artist, Executive Director, Confined Arts

Shaun Leonardo,
Artist, Recess Art

About the Speakers:
Reverend Isaac I. Scott is a Multidisciplinary Visual Artist, Journalist, and Ordained Minister who created Isaac's Quarterly, a multimedia art and consulting company to provide and foster culturally representative aesthetics. Scott has an Associates degree in computer networking technologies from Taylor Business Institute and a Bachelors degree in visual arts from the School of General Studies at Columbia University. Scott is formerly the Associate Pastor of God’s Touch Healing Ministry and currently serves as a Community Partner Minister at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church, NYC, as well as on the U.S. Prisons Program Advisory Council for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Shaun Leonardo is a Brooklyn-based artist from Queens. His multidisciplinary work negotiates societal expectations of manhood—namely surrounding black and brown masculinities and related notions of achievement, collective identity, and experience of failure. He joined Recess in 2021 as Co-Director, helping guide the organization’s continuous evolution as an engine of social change. His performance practice, anchored by his work in Assembly—the organization's diversion program for court-involved youth—is participatory and invested in a process of embodiment. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, is a recipient of support from Creative Capital, Guggenheim Social Practice, Art for Justice, and A Blade of Grass, and was recently profiled in The New York Times and CNN. His work has been featured at institutions including the Guggenheim Museum, the High Line, and the New Museum. 

Jay Darden first began working with Escaping Time in 2016, first as a contributing artist, then taking over curatorial duties one year later. Like most of the artists who work with Escaping Time, Darden is self-taught, and he appreciates that the artwork can be used as an avenue to engage the public in conversations about the criminal legal system. He uses the experience of his seven years of incarceration to inform people about issues related to the criminal legal system, especially post-release obstacles and the lack of educational opportunities, as he also strives to change the way society views people who have been impacted by the carceral system. Darden has worked with colleges and businesses, where he emphasizes the need for DEI work to include people who are prison-impacted. He knows the significance of time and freedom, and he uses his voice to speak for the people who remain confined behind prison walls, shining a light on not just their art and their stories but, above all, their humanity.

Karen Thomas spent 34.5 years in prison, convicted of a domestic violence homicide. While in prison, she realized that everything was beige and dull; she didn’t even have a view. With limited materials, she began creating fabric art wall hangings depicting scenes she yearned to have as her reality. Her art helped her cope with the long years of incarceration and deprivation from the life she knew before the abuse she endured. Upon her release in 2017, she relocated to New York City and was hired to work as a paralegal in the office of a criminal defense attorney. Now, working for the New York State Division of Human Rights, she focuses on helping other women who are disenfranchised. With her art, she sews scenes reminiscent of her childhood and what she still yearns for as her reality. Some of her art has particular emphasis on domestic violence, and she exhibits those pieces to bring attention to the fact that there are women living in situations of intimate partner abuse. Her goal is to let them know that it’s possible to leave their situations with safety. Thomas exhibits her wall hangings, which are called “Yearnscapes,” every summer with Escaping Time on Governor's Island. She has also exhibited at a Columbia University Mass Incarceration seminar, in a solo show at the WOW Café and theater in the East Village, in Jersey City, and in the Interchurch Center in Manhattan.

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