Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Buddhas on Death Row

 Company by Moyo, 2015

For a little over a year now, I have been writing to two prison pen pals, one of whom is on death row. He has been incarcerated since age 18, which means he has spent his entire adult life behind bars (he just turned 35). Most of that time has been in solitary confinement. During that time, he has discovered the love of reading, art, Buddhism, poetry and yoga.

Besides me, he has several other pen pals he corresponds with around the world, one of whom orchestrated this extraordinary show, Buddhas on Death Row, in Helsinki, Finland. For this show, my pen pal has adopted the brush name, Moyo, (Swahili for heart/spirit).  

In his latest letter, Moyo wrote to let me know the exhibit had launched. He called it “…our labor of love. Our as in you. Thank you, thank you.” I only contributed in tiny ways, (helping Moyo secure art supplies, mostly, and of course, moral support) but all the same, I feel immensely honored to have been a part of its realization. I hope the exhibit sheds some light on the issues regarding corporal punishment in general and the cruel and unusual punishment of solitary confinement in particular.

As for the art—well, see for yourself:

Moyo’s Buddhas are the first art pieces I’d seen by him. His art is made from a lot of scavenged materials (in prison, improvisation is just a part of survival-- some of the letters he's sent me are written on brown paper lunch bags). His repeated use of the subject never feels repetitive; he seems to always bring a new perspective to that holy visage, even as he employs new color, texture and media. But I find myself particularly moved by his drawings of solitary confinement. Distortion is the reigning sensation in a place where time loses all meaning, and a person is sucked into an existential nightmare where they just might be the lone survivor shipwrecked on a 54-square foot island, surrounded by walls, but bereft of human contact.

Also, do be sure to read Moyo’s thoughts regarding his work and his experience. If you take away nothing else, I hope you remember these words: 

I don’t expect to ever be let out of solitary confinement alive.

I could die next year, I could die this year. I don’t sense an overwhelming anxiety about this.

What I am most concerned with is spending my time in worthy ways. What bothers me is that I am a waste to others while here. In the movie The Matrix, humans still served some purpose. They were fuel! Here, my purpose is none.

Stick me in front of a camera and let me talk to some at-risk kids. Teach me to knit so I can make some blankets for the homeless. Let me donate some blood or some organs!

I am a healthy male. When I am executed, I won’t be able to donate any of my organs because at that point they will be ruined by the chemicals that the state goes to all sorts of lengths to acquire to kill me and others.

So my protests are my donated organs. My speaking out are my donated organs. My art is my donated organs.


The show runs through Aug. 28.


From the art show website:

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT is the practice of isolating prisoners in small closed cells for periods of time that range from days to decades.

It is a pressing human rights issue in the United States, where 80,000–100,000 people are held in isolation on any given day. Most death row prisoners are held in solitary, with little human contact or interaction; reduced or no natural light; and severe constraints on visitation, including never being able to touch their family or friends.

Solitary confinement causes devastating effects to the mind and the body. These include intense anxiety and severe depression, paranoia and hallucinations, rage and violent fantasies, self-mutilation, nightmares and insomnia, heart palpitations and lower levels of brain function.
Few prison systems use the term “solitary confinement” and refer instead to “segregation” or “restrictive housing”. Those enduring these conditions call it a living death.

In 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment called on UN member nations to ban nearly all uses of solitary confinement in prisons, warning that it amounts to torture.

To learn more, visit: 

To take a closer look at solitary confinement, visit The Guardian’s 6x9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement

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