Written by Mary DeWitt for the Arts Council of Princeton Blog
January 20, 2015
SCI Muncy, 1992, left, Sharon Wiggins, Cyd Berger middle front, Betty Heron on the right, and Mary DeWitt on the ladder
I started the work that led to the four portraits I have exhibited in “The Bigger Picture” by teaching painting in the state prisons in 1988. The most interested and helpful students were women serving life sentences. I didn’t know until then that they were caught in an unjust system with no visibility. We began classes focusing on portraiture – their self-portraits and my portraits of them. At that time, I could paint them from life and record their thoughts. They could make portraits using equipment that would be inconceivable to have in prisons today, for example sharp instruments to create linocuts. The staff and administration back then selected this group believing that they were candidates for pardon. A core group of eight women have been working together ever since, although Sharon Wiggins died in 2013. (Please follow the link to learn more about Sharon.)
Eastern State Penitentiary, 1997, portrait of Cyd Berger, 5’x5’ on glass, reversed
We did all kinds of projects, from creative writing (I remember one book we read, an anthology of poems and essays called This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, as well as articles by inspiring authors like bell hooks), to painting the activities basement floor. The group has also exhibited at sites like Philadelphia City Hall Courtyard, Bucknell University, Moore College of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and Eastern State Penitentiary.
Most of the women were very young when they came to prison. All in the group were first-time offenders. Two were only 17 years old, qualifying for their cases to be reviewed if Miller v. Alabama (please click the link to learn more about this important 2012 Supreme Court decision) is deemed retroactive in Pennsylvania. Three were in their late teens, two in their early twenties. Only one of the women in our group came to prison when she was in her thirties.
Each of my paintings in “The Bigger Picture” is accompanied by a video of the portrait developing from the beginning, with the subject’s interview in voice-over. You can scan the QR codes when you are at the exhibit, or you can go to www.marydewitt.net, to see the videos. Each video contributes to the bigger picture of our prison system in the United States over time, from the early 1970’s until now.
As of today, Cyd Berger and Avis Lee (top two portraits) have collectively served over 70 years of life-sentences in Pennsylvania, a state where all life-sentences are issued without parole. In a 1993 recording accompanying the development of this 2014 portrait, Cyd Berger (top left) describes missing her children, her accomplishments in prison, and her intentions for a future outside of prison. She reveals the hope for pardon that hundreds of prisoners shared in Pennsylvania in the 1990’s. Avis Lee (top right), in a 2013 recording, describes her crime in 1979 and her work in prison now. Her determination to give back to society is consistent with the women I know who are serving life-sentences with no parole. They have been warehoused for decades too long in a broken system.
Kennetta Andrews and Laura “LJ” Kittle were a couple devoted to each other and the women they served at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy (in Muncy, PA, outside of Williamsport, formerly known as the Industrial School for Women), until Kennetta’s death in 2012.
Kennetta, in a 1995 recording made after she retired, describes the prison in the 1970’s. Muncy had no fence and beautiful oriental carpets, and was like “a plantation.” The guards were called “matrons” and were “elderly,” with the exception of Kennetta. She was in her early twenties and hired “on the spot” in an effort by Governor Schapp to have “more blacks” in the system.
LJ Kittle and Kennetta Andrews
LJ Kittle, who retired in 2014, relates the extreme change during her tenure from 1985 until 2014, with the development of the Prison Industrial Complex. Her poems are included in the videos of her and Kennetta Andrews.
More awareness of the Prison Industrial Complex and the ruling on Miller v. Alabama gives me some hope. We in the United States are facing a humanitarian crisis in our prisons, one that requires immediate and radical change.
I feel fortunate to bring the plights of these women to the public’s attention through this exhibition and also through this article that appears in this month’s Of Note magazine.