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From gangster to photographer: One man’s stint in solitary confinement leads to fresh beauty, art

by | Oct 25, 2022

A lone tree, barren in winter, stands against the fading sunlight in this photo captured by “Cricket,” who served eight years in solitary confinement before his release. Photo courtesy Diocese of Phoenix Prison Ministry.

Scientists tell us there’s an epidemic of loneliness in our country and its consequences are severe on our mental and physical health. We’re made for God and community, and yet, we often find ourselves alone.

A phone call to a friend, a quick visit to a neighbor, chatting with a coworker — there are lots of ways to reach out and break the isolation. For many people, however, that’s not an option. Our minds naturally turn to the elderly and home-bound, but the current loneliness epidemic goes beyond them to include the young and the middle-aged, too.

And then there are the forgotten ones, the despised and broken members of our society. Ever since the Soulful Catholic started hanging out with Kevin Starrs, director of prison ministry for the Diocese of Phoenix, our brothers and sisters behind bars often invade my thoughts.

As I ponder loneliness, I’m thinking of the tens of thousands of men and women prisoners in solitary confinement in the U.S. According to a 2018 report by Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center at Yale Law School, some 61,000 Americans are in solitary confinement in prisons around the country. That’s a number that has sharply decreased since 2009 when it a staggering 100,000 plus persons were held in solitary confinement, but it’s still a huge number.

Solitary confinement means a prisoner is held in a cell 22-24 hours per day with severely limited human contact.

Now, for some of these prisoners, “time in the hole,” as it’s known, may be for their own protection. Some are a threat to others or to themselves, and so they are separated.

Nevertheless, this intense isolation takes a toll on prisoners’ mental health. Often, they’re held in a 7-by-10-foot cell with overhead fluorescent lighting 24 hours a day, unable to tell whether it’s day or night or even what day it is.

For those of us who want very much for the alarming level of crime in our country to be addressed, it’s easy to say, “Well, if you don’t want to wind up in prison or solitary confinement, then stay out of trouble!”

It’s a point well-taken, of course, but it doesn’t address why a person becomes a violent criminal in the first place. Neighborhoods ravaged by poverty tend to breed crime. “Everyone we know went to prison. Not college,” Kevin recalls being told. “This is what was modeled for them.”

And for those who insist on the “let’s-concern-ourselves-with-victims’-rights-and-not-these-criminals” approach, I have a question:

Can we not care about victims’ rights AND care that human beings in prisons be treated humanely? I think our hearts are big enough to do both, and if they’re not, we need to work on that. Mistreating prisoners won’t bring the healing victims and their families need.

Do our brothers and sisters who have committed crimes need to be held accountable for their actions? Of course. Do they deserve to be treated with dignity while they’re behind bars? Well, if you’re a follower of Christ, you know that answer to that question is yes.

As Catholics, we believe that every single human person is made in the image and likeness of God. According to that ethic, even the most heinous of murderers does not deserve to be mistreated.

The gangbanger, the drug lord — they are someone’s son or daughter. As Catholics, we must remind ourselves as well that the inmate is a son or daughter of our Heavenly Father, beloved by Him in spite of their crimes. We are called to this kind of radical love that sees the worth in every human person.

Healing through art

My mind turns to an ex-con Kevin told me about who had been held in solitary confinement for eight years. “Cricket” became embroiled in prison politics, it seems, so the separation was to keep him safe. “He told me going to prison saved his life,” Kevin said. Still, the time served in utter isolation was a challenge to his mental health.

Cricket at his art show in 2020.

When Cricket first got out of prison, he was overwhelmed by the everyday sights and sounds of life outside the walls of his cell. A tree, a bush, a flower — these were almost too much to behold in his eyes. Kevin and some prison ministry volunteers gave him a camera to allow him to capture the wonder all around him. And the results were stunning.

An ostensibly mundane scene — a barren tree at sunset in a discount store parking lot — evokes a wistfulness that tugs at your heart. A wildflower covered in dew, a rustic wagon abandoned in the desert — all these and more became art for Cricket. Prints were stretched across canvass and put on display.

“He’s able to help others slow down and see beauty we tend to take for granted,” Kevin said. “He calls me all the time and says, ‘Bro, look at this sunset!’

“We had a reception with hors d’oeuvres and he sold his art. He couldn’t believe people would pay money for it.”

Someone believed in Cricket. Believed he had something worth sharing, something valuable. In short, they believed in him.

And it makes me wonder: Did anyone ever do that for him earlier in life? How might Cricket’s life have been different if they had?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to the rampant crime in our country and the many injustices perpetrated against the innocent. Our world needs Jesus, that’s for sure. And it also needs people who will be the face of Christ to those who have betrayed our trust and broken our hearts. People in prison. Because Jesus died for them, too.

Interested in Cricket’s art? Email [email protected]

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