Future IDs at Alcatraz Uses Art to Change Thinking About Rehabilitation and Reentry After Incarceration

Hoping to change the stigmas around people who have been to prison, Gregory Sale and his collaborators created the Creative Capital Project, Future IDs, a series of works that invites individuals with conviction histories to reimagine their futures, their positions in society, and society’s responses to them. The work’s main goal is to help reframe the narrative of reentry, through artworks, exhibitions, and public programming. Future IDs is currently on display as a year-long exhibition at the New Industries Building on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.

Alex Teplitzky—Can you explain what is Future IDs and what are your goals and the impact of the project you’re hoping for?

Gregory Sale—For close to five years now, I’ve been working with a core group of people with conviction histories in California as an ally and artist-affiliate. Many of them are members of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), an advocacy and support network based in Los Angeles. They are committed to criminal justice reform, and they meet with elected officials often, sharing their individual stories of transformation and convincing them that rehabilitation is possible.

One story in particular caught our attention: core team member Dominique Bell spoke about approaching a busy senator between meetings, telling him, “Listen, you don’t have a lot of time. I just want to show you something,” and reaching into his pocket and pulling out his old prison ID. The senator looked at it, and then Dom went to his other pocket and showed him his college ID. Dom said, “This is the different side. That is the difference.” The senator responded, “Enough said.”

Later when the senator voted for the juvenile justice reform bill SB-260, he credited his encounter with Dom as the moment he made up his mind.

We know the power of one individual story, but what if we simultaneously presented the stories of 50 or 100 people—what kind of power would that generate? If the stigmas against those with conviction histories are in part a cultural problem, we needed to identify visual and cultural solutions to those social biases. Together, we set about translating the group’s criminal justice reform efforts into a visual language.

Our process involved artist workshops, museum visits, and trips to the state legislature in Sacramento. I also invited them to participate in multiple artistic projects as collaborators to deepen our relationships.

The result is an ongoing project that responds to the reductive prison-issued ID and used the structure of an identification card to create a “Future ID.”  More than merely representations of functional documents, these ID-inspired artworks express self-created identities, representing a dream job, a role in society, or a continuing role in the family such as mother or father. The artworks amplify the active voices and future visions of returning citizens.

Alex—So, after all that work, you have now brought it to Alcatraz. Tell me more about the exhibition.

Gregory—The Future IDs at Alcatraz exhibition is installed in the New Industries Building, a cavernous space that once housed the prison’s laundry and manufacturing facilities. It features 40 of these ID-inspired artworks, enlarged and printed on vinyl to stand up to the physically imposing space.

My collaborators and I designed the year-long exhibition together with a series of monthly public programs as a platform for conversation to shift thinking about rehabilitation, reentry, and reintegration. For many of these programs, the audience and participants gather at three very long tables that run down the center of the room.

Cirese LaBerge-Bader with her Future ID at Alcatraz

We began in November 2018 as an artist studio that the public could visit. In February of this year, after the government shutdown, we launched a Day of Public Programs with a welcome by Shaka Senghor, the director of ARC and a blessing by Henry Frank (Yurok-Pomo) of the William James Association Prison Arts Project. Sister Warriors, a roundtable discussion co-led by the Young Women’s Freedom Center and project collaborator Jessica Tully, focused on the unique challenges facing women who have been incarcerated and how to support them. Another really resonant program, Stand by your Art, involved participants who made IDs (or their family member representatives) standing next to their works of art and discussing them with visitors.

This March, we hosted a symposium on Education and Reintegration, which considered ways higher education can support and stimulate successful reentry. On the third Saturday of each month until October 2019, we are co-hosting performances, workshops, and civic dialogue experiments co-curated with the more than 20 system-involved community organizations that we have partnered with.

With its layered history and 1.7 million annual visitors, Alcatraz provides an amazing context for the project—as a military prison, a federal penitentiary, birthplace of the Native American Red Power Movement, and now a national park. In 2014, Art in the Parks hosted @ Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz with the FOR-SITE Foundation, which contributed to Alcatraz receiving a designation as an International Site of Conscience.

Future IDs at Alcatraz in partnership with National Park Service, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and a broad spectrum of community organizations is helping expand Alcatraz’s capacity as a site of reconciliation, and as a catalyst for social change.

Kirn Kim, one of the project collaborators, has remarked on how great it is to showcase this project in a place that was once the most infamous prisons in the world. Our work especially supports guys on the inside who are thinking, “Look, we’re just going to die in prison, why even try?” Now people are coming home, people are getting a chance to work—that wasn’t happening before. Future IDs is part of that renewed hope.

So much at Alcatraz is about memory or nostalgia for the past. We want to springboard from this nostalgic history into the present and the future.

Alex—Can you tell me some more about the core team?

Gregory—The team that has participated in this fluid, collaborative process over the past few years is just great! Dr. Luis Garcia, Kirn Kim, Sabrina Reid, Jessica Tully, and I are taking lead on advancing Future IDs at Alcatraz into full production and presentation. We’re co-hosting public programs, continuing to offer art-making workshops, accepting contributions of new IDs, and evolving the installation on Alcatraz.

In addition to the current core-project collaborators, there are also many project participants and contributors. The variety of personal experiences and expertise has allowed the project to grow and unfold organically, and not be prematurely defined. Sharing control with these collaborators is crucial.

Dr. Luis Garcia earned his high school diploma in LA County jail, and received a Doctorate in Educational Leadership for Social Justice from Loyola Marymount University. Today, he works as director of programs for Weingart Center in LA’s Skid Row. Kirn Kim, a former juvenile lifer (20 years) works as a media specialist at The California Endowment. He is their first employee with a conviction history. Sabrina Reid is a graduate of the Delancey Street Project and an advisory board member on re-entry for the San Francisco DA’s Office. She works as a community outreach coordinator for Community Works West at the Sheriff’s Office. Jessica Tully, who, like myself, does not have a conviction history, is a social practice artist, community organizer, and event producer.

Other key players like Dominique Bell who showed his IDs to the senator, Ryan Lo, Aaron Mercado, LaVell Baylor, and Emiliano Lopez helped shape the project along the way, and co-led artmaking workshops across California, both inside prisons and in communities.

These workshops and the process helped produce some of the artwork for the exhibition, as well as new social understandings that we have incorporated into the project. For example, we found that a beautiful softening and collapsing of “otherness” can happen when you mix a room of individuals with conviction histories and those without while they make art together.

What does it mean to curate a social and physical space, where this kind of “collapsing of otherness” happens? In our programs on Alcatraz, with about a third of the room comprised of individuals with conviction histories, a third is “bridge” people working with justice-involved programs, and a third is interested visitors with no experience of incarceration, we are able to create a dynamic social and physical space, where transformative discussions can occur. It has been very fertile ground.

Alex—I’m thinking about that striking stat that 1.7 million people visit Alcatraz annually. Even if a quarter of those visitors left thinking seriously about criminal justice reform, that’s an incredible number of people whose perspectives might change.  How do you feel this project is contributing to this growing awareness?

Gregory—Though I imagine a lot of Alcatraz visitors are drawn to the iconic prison because of its caricature from Hollywood movies, once here, they can feel the power of the site’s history of incarceration, activism and self-determination, and even reconciliation.

Getting out to the island can be a difficult journey, both literally and metaphorically. The isolation of Alcatraz and the physical effort required to get there adds to this experience: taking the ferry, negotiating the lines of national park tourists, walking up and down the steep hills. For some of the people who are making the journey out to Alcatraz, this might be the closest they’ve ever come to an actual prison.

Most of the project’s main collaborators, including the 40 people with conviction histories whose IDs-inspired artworks were selected for the exhibition, have made a long journey in their own lives to be at the point of participating in this project.

For me I see something poetic about the coming together of those diverse journeys.

The project core collaborators intend to create a space that feels safe and welcoming enough for any visitor. For those who have been incarcerated or their family members, visiting Alcatraz could be heavy. This needs to be a safe space for everyone. So much at Alcatraz is about memory or nostalgia for the past. We want to springboard from this nostalgic history into the present and the future.

When the visitors come to the exhibition and/or participate in one of the public programs, we hope they consider their own futures. Ideally, visitors will feel connected in some meaningful way to returning citizens, leading to dialogue and mutual learning.

Kirn Kim, Future IDs colalborator and Ranger Steve Cote visit the Future IDs at Alcatraz exhibition. Photo by Gregory Sale

Alex—Criminal justice has become more and more of an important issue in the US since the ‘90s, especially with more progressive political candidates coming forward supporting it. How have you experienced that change and cultural shift in these recent years?

Gregory—Nationally, we’re at this pivotal moment, and there is growing social and political awareness of the need for true reform. The federal government has finally started working on legislation to address some of the inequities. Still, a lot more needs to be done. Though some states are taking progressive action, others still seem to be negotiating some of those same beliefs that led to the devastating situation we find ourselves in today.

I’ve spent most of the last 20 years in Arizona, where I turned my art practice more directly towards social justice issues. One of my first major projects in this arena involved my local Sheriff, Arizona’s notorious Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by President Trump.

It’s been enriching to work in California, a national leader in justice reform. You feel the possibility for immediate and real social change here in the Bay Area, which is so progressive and also super rigorous. It’s been ideal for launching Future IDs at Alcatraz.

Alex—How has Creative Capital been helpful through all of this, after receiving the award in 2013?

Gregory—The first iteration of the project was designed to happen in Arizona, but working with Creative Capital gave me the capacity and strategies to dream larger, and imagine what it would be like to be a nationally-based artist rather than a regional artist. I felt like I moved up to the big leagues, but I sat on the bench for a while—new strategies and new networks were introduced to me. I understood them intellectually, but it took me a while to “work them” and understand them deeply.

When I made the decision that this next body of work needed to unfold in a community that was embracing criminal justice reform more actively, I wanted to embed myself deeply in that place. It took years to establish the relationships and trust necessary to undertake a project of this scale. Creative Capital helped me envision making the leap to another state, and helped me build the scaffolding socially, professionally, and economically to come out to this new location and build new networks.

I’m so appreciative of Creative Capital’s multilayered support in helping me realize the potential of this work. We were recently awarded an Open Spaces grant from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which would not have been possible without Creative Capital’s coaching and training. This new funding will help us move forward to the end of the project, and most importantly support a special team of paid Art and Justice intern guides, chosen from among system-connected colleges students, who can meaningfully address visitors’ questions about incarceration.

Today, this country has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people. More than 95% will eventually be released. Of those incarcerated, people living below the poverty line and people of color are disproportionately impacted. Socially, it’s almost impossible to get beyond the stigma of having a history of incarceration. This needs to change.

One of the featured artists who is working towards a Master’s degree and wasn’t open about his past at the university, came to see the exhibition with six accomplished scholars last month. He shared his life experience with some of his colleagues for the first time. He took a big personal risk that I didn’t expect or know about. So I’ve been asking myself, what is it that we’ve created here that made him feel safe enough to share those aspects of himself and integrate his past and future self?

Core project collaborator Dr. Luis Garcia recently spoke to this aspect of the project, recognizing how his involvement has guided him inward towards a deeper awareness of personal resilience and healing, moving past shame and towards a space of gratitude for the support he received from his family and community.

I am in awe of the personal, transformative risks these key collaborators and contributors are taking for this project. They have allowed their images and words to appear in this exhibition and in videos, and are participating in our public programs. They have come to trust the open, creative process and be vulnerable, putting themselves on display. Without this willingness, the work would not have been possible.

Read more about and find out how to visit Future IDs at Alcatraz.