SASKATOON — Art enthusiasts and those with a heart for restorative justice gathered at the Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming (SCYAP) Art Gallery in Saskatoon Sept. 15 for a one-day exhibit entitled “Dads Doin’ Time,” a project highlighting the impact of incarceration on families.
Showcasing the work of 18 writers and visual artists, both inside and outside correctional facilities, the collection was six months in the making, from April to September 2017. Volunteers and program co-ordinators from STR8UP, the Inspired Minds All Nations Creative Writing Program, the University of Saskatchewan, and the Saskatoon Correctional Centre collaborated with artists to curate the exhibit in an effort to shine awareness on the impact that incarceration has on husbands, fathers and children.
“This project brought together people who were involved in Inspired Minds Creative Writing classes and SR8UP members,” says Dr. Nancy Van Styvendale, a co-ordinator of the Inspired Minds program, a volunteer writing workshop run through the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, and professor of English at the U of S. “Everyone here is interested in creative expression as a way of thinking through their own feelings, as a way of communicating a social message and giving back to the community.”
STR8UP, a gang prevention and support services organization, values community engagement through artistic expression, and this exhibit follows on the heels of two previously released collections of writing from STR8UP members that feature personal stories of recovery from gang life.
Meeting with a group of men at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, volunteer student facilitator Jillian Baker also worked with the artists to produce the exhibit.
“While it varied from week to week, we would have anywhere from 10 to 15 people in the room,” says Baker. “We had opportunities to do private writing and to share our writing. It was a great learning experience for me, and working with the men was one of the most pleasant teaching atmospheres I have ever been in. It was a safe and welcoming place for people to contribute. Early on, we established an environment in which people felt safe and comfortable to share and be vulnerable, which was huge because we dealt with some important subject matter.”
Josh, a member of SR8UP and a participant in the “Dads Doin’ Time” project, says, “It was a good learning experience. I learned a lot about how to be a good father — and I’m still learning.”
He also expresses a desire to see parents receive better access to their children while in prison. All visits at the Correctional Centre are “no contact,” so physical access to family is restricted.
“I hope people will take from this project an understanding of the personal impacts of incarceration on fathers, sons and families, and the way in which changes need to be made to the system to facilitate the strengthening of family bonds,” says Van Styvendale. “If people are in jail, they are only able to see family members through glass. It’s a heartbreaking reality.
“We need to put more stock in the importance of family connection,” she says, “because people in the criminal justice system come back into the public world. They need to have family support that will assist them with reintegration into society and reduce recidivism. Strengthening family connections is a preventative measure.”
Exhibit co-ordinators speak about the limitations that exist around access, letter-writing and postage, as well as the cost of making a phone call within the Correctional Centre.
“Dads Doin’ Time” offered an opportunity to bring awareness and healing through creativity, say those involved in the project.
“The voices presented here speak powerfully to the very real pain, but also the joy that comes with being a parent, even while in prison,” Van Styvendale notes.
Visitors were invited to write anonymous notes to the artists still in jail and offer comments on the work — messages of encouragement and hope, and an acknowledgement that their voices are being heard.