Voices from the Row: art and poetry from death row, San Quentin

4 June – 7 July 2018 

Voices from the Row presents a collection of poetry written and read by prisoners incarcerated on death row at San Quentin state prison in the USA. In the words of one of the prisoners, “This exhibition of work shows that poetry and art has the power to not only exist in a place akin to hell, but to thrive there and transcend it by searching and finding beauty within the bowels of pain, desolation and despair.”

The prisoners who have written and who you hear reading their poems are condemned to a sentence of death. Through their poetry they strive to express the deep-seated emotions stirring inside them and to connect to a social world they are deprived of. Steve Champion, incarcerated on death row in 1982 at the age of 18, says of poetry on death row: “Writing has forced these men to take stock of their life, and poetry has become a way to reconnect to their own humanity. They understand there can be no self transformation or redemption without a process of self examination. To free themselves from the shackles of their own past requires a constant mirror. To write poetry and create art allows these men to see a reflection of their own souls”.

As well as poetry, this unique and thought-provoking exhibition will feature artworks and objects created by death row inmates. Art on display is available for purchase; 20% of proceeds will be donated to charity and the remainder was donated to the prisoners to enable them to purchase writing and art materials.

The exhibition launch was on 6 June and a panel discussion with performances was held on 6 July. The panellists and readers were exhibition curator and founder of ArtReach Nicola White; Helena Coxshall, editor The Wing of Friendship, newsletter of Lifelines, UK-based charity supporting death row prisoners in the USA; Gary Mansfield, ex-offender, now artists, curator and MizogArt podcaster; Joelle Taylor, award winning spoken word artist and author, who is mentoring Lady Unchained; Lady Unchained, poet, promoter, workshop facilitator, founder and CEO of Unchained; and Jamal Khan, award winning writer and performer who was sent to prison at the age of 15. In November he publishes the journal he kept whilst inside., which contains diary entries, poems and short stories.

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