Art from the Heart of the Prison System

The Beat Within showcases youth art

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The Beat Within poster, drawn by Drew G. from the La Paloma Correctional Center in Elroy, Arizona.
Photos by Yvonne Gonzalez

What started as writing workshops in San Francisco’s juvenile hall in January 1996 flourished into what  The Beat Within is now — a 60-page biweekly newsletter composed of work by incarcerated youths in juvenile halls across the  country.

Fourth-year Jocelyn Lopez-Anleu brought  The Beat Within to UC Santa Cruz’s Sesnon Underground gallery. After several months of planning, the gallery opened its doors to the public on Nov. 25 with an exhibit displaying several of the pieces featured in the publication.

The gallery walls feature poetry and artwork by youths ranging from 12 to 17 years old. Hard copies of newsletters for the public to read accompany these creative pieces. Inside, visitors can find a variety of artwork, poetry and responses from the readers.

Founder of The Beat Within David Inocencio first imagined the program after the U.S.’s crack epidemic, when incarceration levels among youths in the U.S. were at an all-time high. 

The murder of Tupac Shakur inspired Inocencio. Shakur believed it’s important to give affected youths a platform to share their emotions in a safe and creative manner. As a Black rapper who was vocal about the police injustice against marginalized groups, Shakur was much more than just an artist. He’s a symbol of strength and  hope.  

These expressions of strength and hope are shown in a 4-by-3 layout on one of the gallery walls. Each of the 12 images represents their own self-reflections, hopes and fears for the future, issues of racism and other personal  messages.

The program provided ruled paper for the youths to create their work. Curators then photocopied the artwork to be displayed in the gallery.

Jocelyn Lopez-Anleu was inspired by their partner Missy Hart, who has been featured in the newsletter herself, to create the exhibit.

“She has shared with me what a large impact creating art had on her while she was in the system, as well as the significance of seeing her art published and circulating to other youths,” Lopez-Anleu said in an email. “I wanted to bring awareness to this important publication to a larger audience and show the youths’ art outside of the system that continues to oppress them.”

    Working within a system designed to hide their presence behind concrete walls and steel bars, these children are grasping onto their childhood by creating art. 

The exhibit displays a drawing of Mickey and Minnie Mouse embracing each other with hearts floating around them and another drawing of two teddy bears, one of which is holding a heart that says “LOVE.” 

 “They really show that these artists are children whose childhood is being stolen from them due to a system not designed to properly help their situations,” Lopez-Anleu said in an email.

 In addition to paid subscriptions, copies of the newsletter are passed around in juvenile halls, allowing incarcerated youths to view and share their work with others in similar situations.

The Beat Within releases a full anthology biweekly.

The Beat Within isn’t just an outlet for these children, but a way of communicating with their family and friends on the other side. Often, children are ashamed or embarrassed to open up to their loved ones face-to-face, whether it be in the form of apologies, love or remorse.

“Most of the world doesn’t realize what they’re dealing with,” said Jill Wolfson, long-time volunteer and facilitator of the Santa Cruz workshops for The Beat Within at San Francisco juvenile hall. “They’re dealing with court cases, family issues, friend issues. They’re away from their  communities.”

This sense of isolation can be seen in one of the wall sections by an incarcerated youth based in Santa Cruz. Her piece reflects her everyday life in a cell. As a girl sits on a mattress with her head in her hands, the viewer can see the cement wall with tick marks, counting how many days have passed by. The words “Free Me” are engraved. 

“I believe [the newsletter] allows them to reassert their humanity, to share what it’s like being in the system, remember things about their life on the outside, and share messages of hope with other youth,” Lopez-Anleu said in an email. “That aspect of community that exists within the newsletter is beautiful and art allows them to do that.”