Call Declined: Life in Prison
Why is it important to learn about prison from people who have been directly impacted? Well, in this episode, Aimee and Kamisha share their own stories about incarceration – and what they tell us reveals a lot about community services, mental health and substance use treatment, intergenerational family trauma, and mass incarceration in our country.
Aimee and Kamisha also explain how they got started making art in prison and talk about the people and opportunities that inspired them to create The Returning Artists Guild.
Incarcerated Women and Girls (The Sentencing Project): https://www.sentencingproject.org/app/uploads/2023/05/Incarcerated-Women-and-Girls-1.pdf
Pens to Pictures Panel Discussion (Chinonye Chukwu and others): https://wexarts.org/education/pens-pictures
For They Know Not (Aimee Wissman’s Pens to Pictures Film): https://vimeo.com/356550411
BANG! (Kamisha Thomas’s Pens to Pictures Film): https://vimeo.com/356291769
Story Chain (Jonathan Platt): https://story-chain.org/
Reentry Stories (Mary Evans/WYSO): https://www.wyso.org/reentrystories
The Inside Out Prison Exchange Program: https://www.insideoutcenter.org/
Call Declined is hosted by Melissa Beck and presented by the Sozosei Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Otsuka. The Foundation’s goal is to increase access to mental healthcare in order to eliminate the inappropriate use of jails and prisons for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the United States. Learn more at www.SozoseiFoundation.org.
The Sozosei Foundation extends special thanks to Aimee Wissman and Kamisha Thomas, visionary artists and co-founders of The Returning Artists Guild whose creativity, resilience, and lived experience inspire us to build a world where mental illness is not a crime. To learn more about the Guild visit www.thereturningartistsguild.org.
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Please note that this podcast contains mature content, including explicit language and discussions about drug use and other potentially sensitive topics. The views expressed are solely those of the participants and do not reflect the opinions of the Sozosei Foundation, podcast host or sponsors. Listener discretion is advised. This content is intended for mature audiences and is not suitable for all listeners.
Melissa Beck, Vivian Stinson, Aimee Wissman, Kamisha Thomas
Melissa Beck 00:00
This podcast contains mature content, including explicit language and discussions about drug use, and other potentially sensitive topics. The views expressed are solely those of the participants and do not reflect the opinions of the pseudo safe Foundation, podcast hosts or sponsors, listener discretion is advised. The content is intended for mature audiences and is not suitable for all listeners. How did you meet? Bring us back to that meeting, if you can remember the very first time.
Aimee Wissman 00:34
So we were in the same prison together but I was a higher security level.
Melissa Beck 00:39
And we met here in Ohio.
Kamisha Thomas 00:40
Yes, and in correctional Institution.
Melissa Beck 00:44
Kamisha Thomas 00:45
Wah, wah, wow.
Melissa Beck 00:51
Welcome back to Call Declined. I’m your host, Melissa Beck. If you haven’t listened to episode one of our journey with Kamisha Thomas and Aimee Westman, I’d suggest you go back and do that now.
Aimee Wissman 01:12
And then the friendship was kind of like a slow burn like we weren’t best friends right away or anything like I think the more that we got to know each other, we realized how much we had in common and how many similar like goals we had for the future. And we just spent a lot of time like walking laps and sitting on benches.
Kamisha Thomas 01:35
Benches, we have some classes together. Once we start sitting next to each other in class, it was like.
Aimee Wissman 01:43
I got my security level lower. But yeah, many plates of food were exchanged, coffee.
Melissa Beck 01:51
A friendship was born and develop nice. In this episode, we’re talking about prison. What happened to commission Aimee while they were incarcerated, and what that tells us about community services, mental health and substance use treatment, intergenerational family trauma and mass incarceration in our country. According to the Sentencing Project, Across the nation, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 475% between 1980 and 2020. In fact, incarcerated women, especially bipoc, women were the fastest growing demographic inside of the criminal legal system. Their experiences are directly related to policies and practices of over policing, severe sentencing disparities, and in some states private prison incentives. These women face challenges disproportionate to men because of the stress of sexual assault outside and inside detention walls. They also face substance abuse issues, severe mental health issues, and child caretaker issues. While incarcerated. For many women, jails and prisons act as our nation’s largest shelter for survivors of family violence. Many women locked up with Aimee and Kamisha were in prison due to actions taken in self defense against abusive partners, and the same women had witnessed violence in their own families, or have been the target of violence at the hands of those who ostensibly love them. Being inside can be the first moment of safety from the brutality women face on the outside. Clearly, there is something very wrong with our nation’s policies and cultural practices that find us offering safety to women only inside of a cage and locking people up who actually need treatment and care. We’re picking up the stories of these two remarkable women. You’ll remember in episode one, we talked about their childhoods, and there are many calls for help that were declined. In this episode, we go from the moment of arrest to a maximum security prison. What care or lack of care did they encounter along the way? And once they were inside? How did they form a bond that would change their lives forever? Our first stop the jail. What year is it now?
Aimee Wissman 04:30
This would have been 2012.
Melissa Beck 04:33
2012 okay. Describe jail for us, when you wake up in that cell what who else is are there other people in the cell? What does it smell like?
Aimee Wissman 04:45
Oh my god, I mean, it’s the imagery that people have is probably not that far off it’s extremely cold, I was really thin and I just remember how horribly cold I was the entire time. Again, no bras, the blanket in the sheets like I, there’s a smell, to a jail blanket that like, would probably send me like an overly like I couldn’t ever smell that smell again, like I just cannot. Jail is tougher than prison in some ways because you have so much less in terms of like food or possessions or like any like you just have so much less of that kind of creature comforts of any kind.
Melissa Beck 05:31
Let’s remember that jail and prison serve different purposes in the United States. Jails are where people go after they are arrested, as they await a trial or a plea deal. Jails are also where people serve sentences for one year or less after being convicted of low level crimes. People go to prison on the other hand, after being convicted and sentenced to one year or more.
Aimee Wissman 05:58
You know, in prison, you know how much time you have, and you can kind of resign yourself, but in jail, you’re in this quasi like maybe I could get out. So your brain spent so much time like trying to figure out how you’re gonna get released or what could happen in court, and you’re just like, stressed out about court the whole time, and then family stuff, kid stuff is like, incredibly sad, and you’re very disconnected. But like in jail, there’s so much emphasis on like, getting out of there. Whereas prison, there’s a lot more emphasis on like, getting through.
Melissa Beck 06:35
And in jail, of course, right you’re just charged with a crime. You haven’t been convicted? You’ve been arrested, did you have a lawyer?
Aimee Wissman 06:44
I did, I had paid lawyers for the first time. And I’m pretty sure the one dude like sold me out, because he had a high profile murder case going on and I was supposed to get concurrent time, which means your sentences would run together. And I ended up getting consecutive time like at the last second.
Melissa Beck 07:05
Did you take a plea Aimee? Where did you go to trial?
Aimee Wissman 07:08
I did take a plea. I’ve never been advised to not take a plea, like a public attorney or a paid attorney. They’ve always been like, we’re gonna plead we’re employee out, we’re gonna play this down. We can get it rolled into less we can run it concurrently can my [..] right?
Melissa Beck 07:24
So the American way.
Aimee Wissman 07:26
Yeah, we can wheel and deal but they may not be willing and dealing in your interest I noticed and it was an election year. So I feel like that played into the over sentencing. The judge told me in sentencing that maybe someday I would be able to raise my daughter inside. Because that’s what I was broke up with out in court. You know, when it went from concurrent to consecutive, I was like crying, you know, like, fuck, and I get mouthing to my mom, like my baby, my baby, and it was dramatic, and then the judge said that, and I was like, what planet do you live on that you think that that’s the kind of environment where something like that goes on could ever go on? Or that I would ever want to bring a child in into this space and raise? It was just like, so surreal.
Melissa Beck 08:18
Yeah, it still is yeah, it’s hard for me when you said that I I thought to myself, oh the judge must have meant like inside a house. But you’re saying that the judge was saying inside prison? I see.
Aimee Wissman 08:31
Yeah, like your life’s not over, maybe someday or you can raise your daughter there’s that like, what the, what? Where are you think you’re sending me?
Melissa Beck 08:45
Can you bring us to the moments where the sentence? Which it sounds like you’re pretty surprised when it’s not concurrent. And so your sentences now longer? It sounds like you thought it would be that? What was that moment like and what happened after it?
Aimee Wissman 09:05
It was horrifying because when you go from four years to eight years, you pass a five year mark, which is incredibly important in terms of everything that’s going to happen to you in person. So if you have less than five years, you’re able to start filing for judicial release after six months in prison, or after your mandatory time is done if you have mandatory time, but if you have over five years, you have to surf all of that five years before you’re able to start applying for early release. Like in that moment, I think my whole world just stopped and I don’t think I was able to process it at all really like in the I just couldn’t, eight years? I couldn’t like make that make sense.
Melissa Beck 09:49
Right, I’m sure were you, how was your health at that time? Aimee, were you feeling healthy? Were you?
Aimee Wissman 09:57
No, I mean, the jail was giving me different psych meds and when I was on outside and so I was kind of really depressed and going through all the phases of, you know, taking new medications that you’re not used to and, and they were heavy medications like lithium. So I think that’s part of the other reason why I have a hard time was like memory and stuff like it’s all very soupy, in there it’s not very clear in what order things happened and I think a lot of that is because like I was out of my mind with grief and was like, man, like, just wasn’t a clear thinking person until probably like 18 months into my bed or something like, it took a long time.
Melissa Beck 10:47
So you hear the news of this sentence. You’re in a very understandable shock. What happens next do you remember?
Aimee Wissman 10:59
Yup, had to go sit in a holding cell and wait for the rest of the court day to finish. Then I got back to the jail eventually. And I think the next thing for me became like, how do I get to prison? Get me out of jai, g et me to the prison immediately, I heard they had fresh fruit there, are heard you can go outside, you know.
Melissa Beck 11:25
You’ve heard that from other can visit him at the jail.
Aimee Wissman 11:27
Yeah, I mean, that’s a part of what goes on in jail, I think is prepping people that are about to go to prison for what they’re gonna see there like, you know, because you can’t imagine it until it happens, no matter what they tell you but the tales of fresh fruit and of being able to walk around outside and have visits you know, where you can hug your child and not be behind the glass. You know, I went to wasn’t seeing live at all for months and.
Melissa Beck 11:59
Right, and the prison that you were heading for was called.
Aimee Wissman 12:03
The Ohio reformatory for women, it’s in Marysville, we pretty much just call it Marysville. That is where women go to get their, like intake process and then they assess your like security level and all that kind of stuff, and then they’ll send you to a different prison if you would go but I mean, most people stay in Marysville, or if you’re Max, you go to DCI, which is where I went.
Melissa Beck 12:31
Kamisha’s journey to the Dayton Correctional Institution started in South Carolina, where she had fled after a bank robbery in Ohio.
Kamisha Thomas 12:39
When we got extradited to Columbus, and like being extradited is not a fun situation. You’re shackled and chained, right? So they got shackles on your feet, you got the waistband with the handcuffs and for the women. Like there’s like the seat is literally like this wide, it’s like a bench, it’s like plywood and it’s very uncomfortable, and it’s a very small space because the women are kept right behind the driver and passenger. And then the men are in the big part in the back. So like a paddy wagon type situation in the back.
Melissa Beck 13:18
So you drive back from South Carolina to Ohio.
Kamisha Thomas 13:23
Stopping at only other prisons and jails because other people have to get dropped off and picked up, so it’s not like a straight shot like going driving straight back, we stopped several times. And only in like Sallyport to use the bathroom and keep it pushing, dropping off passengers picking them up.
Melissa Beck 13:43
The other woman in sitting on this three inch piece of wood, did you talk to her?
Kamisha Thomas 13:49
Yeah. Well, she talked, I didn’t I was only talking to my co defendant at the time because that was like the only person that I was interested in talking to. I didn’t want to hear anything that she had to say. So there was no kind of like the shared trauma support from the southern pronoun. This is bullshit that like my ankles were swollen, like I had elephantitis about the feet you know, like, it was a bad and it was like pressing into my skin it was like, oh God, it’s so fucking miserable. So finally I get back to Columbus to Marconi Boulevard, the headquarters police station and they’re like, okay, here’s your charges, your charge blah, fucking Hot Pursuit guy takes me from headquarters to the Franklin County the jail.
Melissa Beck 14:48
Just to back up really quickly here for a second Hot Pursuit was the name of an amateur rock band of local police officers that would perform at public schools across Ohio as part of the DARE program, the program after many years of operation and taxpayer dollars spent was debunked as ineffective. The officer transferrin Kamisha, was the bass player in Hot Pursuit. How did you recognize him?
Kamisha Thomas 15:16
I just I was like your face looks familiar, he’s like it should you ever heard a Hot Pursuit? Oh, boy have I like that’s you?
Melissa Beck 15:27
Wow, did he offer to give you an autograph?
Kamisha Thomas 15:29
No, no, no, I didn’t get I didn’t get an autograph. But he did try to give me some encouragement like, you know, everybody makes mistakes it just sucks that yours brought you here but you seem like a nice kid and to basically keep my head up, so it wasn’t that bad. But like jail Melissa. It’s a no for me, it’s a no, I was there for seven months.
Melissa Beck 15:58
Kamisha Thomas 15:59
Yeah, yeah, seven months because of like continuances and bullshit and so my jail Franklin County is not at all like the swanky Butler County where they have cells, no, this is just one room, two toilet, one hot box which some people shower in the air we call it the hot box because it’s just literally a box like this this big, this how big the like.
Melissa Beck 16:32
Two feet two and a half feet wide?
Kamisha Thomas 16:34
Yes, it’s not the if you are an overweight person, you are going to have a hard time, very hard time. The food’s terrible. The light is always on, they never ever, ever turn the lights off. The TV is behind a glass, you can only just like reach into a small hole to push the button to turn it turn the channel and you can’t hear the TV. The phones are right next to the TV it’s chaos, it’s like a fucking a Romper Room for degenerates.
Melissa Beck 17:08
Yeah, when you got to the jail was there any discussion of how you were feeling? or mental health needs or?
Kamisha Thomas 17:17
No, everybody was like, oh, you’ll have a psi you’ll have a psi but I never got a psi is a pre sentencing investigation where they’re supposed to come and ask you all types of questions and assess where you are to determine whether or not you should even like is, is the prosecutor just full of shit or is this person really a menace to society?
Melissa Beck 17:43
So you ultimately took a plea? Is that right?
Kamisha Thomas 17:47
Yeah, took a plea, the plea was for eight years. With one year for the gun spec. It was supposed to be mandatory three years on the gun spec. So basically, the way they wrote up the plea agreement, it was F two time that I was getting for the felony twos, but when they wrote it all out, I was convicted of an F one aggravated robbery.
Melissa Beck 18:20
First degree felony.
Kamisha Thomas 18:21
Yes, so I got nine years. And it was concurrent because it was really like 16 years because it was two counts. So yeah, nine years one year mandatory for the gun spec, that is the plea agreement that my lawyer worked out. And then it was like wait to go to prison. I was like, I’m ready to go right now, it took weeks for me after being sentenced. No, maybe it was just like one week. I did right out felt like week it felt like we know, but get on the bus, leaving the county going to Marysville. And I remember when we pulled up in the van, I’m like thinking is this a real place? Like this can’t be real I felt like I was entering the Twilight Zone.
Melissa Beck 19:23
Kamisha Thomas 19:25
It was just it looked very desolate. And very don’t know like the life was sucked out of it, like things were in color but it was so gray washed or you know, like, like you’re watching a TV with bad color. When you first get there, they make you strip and take off your jail clothes. You have to go through the whole squat and cough and show me the bottom of your feet, again, as if you weren’t just in jail.
Melissa Beck 20:05
Show me both pinks.
Kamisha Thomas 20:07
Show me, I want to see the pinks. Yeah. It’s the most degrading experience ever. It’s just so degrading, it was worse in prison than it was in the jail in the jail, they just have absolutely they give zero fucks about anything. But but it was just being I don’t know, I just felt like it was very inhumane.
Aimee Wissman 20:36
And you’re not doing that activity alone, by the way, like I did that with like four other women. Like we all just had a group strip, you know.
Kamisha Thomas 20:43
I left that part out, I’m sorry yeah, there was it was a group situation.
Aimee Wissman 20:49
So you know what I mean? Like, if, if so, and so’s not squat and good enough, you’re all standing there naked, waiting on them to figure out what’s going on with that, you know, so like, immediately, you’re kind of just like, broken down and shocked into your new environment. What we talked about a lot are that, like, I’ve realized more and more like I knew at them, but I know more deeply now is the way that they intentionally disrupt things and make things chaotic and change rules or policies or just, you know, whatever, like, on a whim on a whim. It’s really it’s a control tactic. And it it works because it’s so unpredictable. You know, like, we went through the same process within a year of each other, but like, there’s going to be differences, like I did get mental health, eval, but that’s probably because they came in on meds.
Melissa Beck 21:44
And what was that evaluation like, if you remember,
Aimee Wissman 21:48
All I can remember is that the doctor was an Indian woman. And I still like the sound of her voice, I was like, interested in but she was asking me questions, and she had her leg up like this, like in her foot on a filing cabinet and she had no shoes on, and with her toes, she was like, moving the files and so I know that I was in her office for like, two hours or something obscene, but all I can really remember is that, like, they’re asking me the standard set of questions and, of course, I’m extremely, like, mentally unwell at this point. So it took a long time to get off of the things that I had been put on in jail, and then like, get the person to prescribe me something lower down like Zoloft and then it took me a couple years to get off the Zoloft and get off the caseload. But all I remember that intake was just that lady and her damn toes like, yeah, you know, and that speaks to like, kind of the trauma of what it’s like, it’s like, I don’t know what happened in that interview, but I know that woman had no shoes on, and she was messing with them files.
Kamisha Thomas 22:59
With her feet.
Melissa Beck 23:01
Right, yeah that’s a clear picture that you’re describing.
Aimee Wissman 23:06
And I have to tell you my whole life story? Like, what room are we in?
Melissa Beck 23:10
Please put your shoes on like. Yeah, yeah so you, you both go through the same process? Not at the same time because you haven’t met yet. Because you meet at Dayton Correctional Institution. Okay, so can you describe Dayton, like, on that bus? You’re on your way? How are you feeling? What are you seeing?
Aimee Wissman 23:42
I’m stressed out that I max. And I don’t understand that. Like, off top. I’m like, why like this? There’s no way me, I just I mean, I guess I should have known but I couldn’t accept it I was like this is there’s no way I’m going to like this person but then. yeah, I can remember pulling up I can remember being really fascinated by the way that we came in, like on the backside and like trying to keep as much of the yard and the buildings and everything as I could. And I think my brain was like in overdrive because there’s so much anticipation about what am I walking into? Who’s going to be like, what selama ended up in? Who’s going to be a problem?
Kamisha Thomas 24:34
What is yeah, what is, you know, what are these CLI.
Aimee Wissman 24:38
Walking into? You just don’t know.
Melissa Beck 24:43
After the break, we will meet up Viv a kind of person we all hope for in our own lives, unabashedly positive, magically transformative, and most importantly, incredibly helpful. And Aimee and Kamisha, dare to imagine life from the outside.
Melissa Beck 25:28
You know, I can imagine that in your time, there were corrections staff who made a difference or more positive difference, is there anyone? Is there any bright light?
Kamisha Thomas 25:43
Yeah, there’s aunt Vivis what I call her. She was the warden’s assistant. She definitely played a huge role in all of the sort of extra curricular things that we were doing within the prison.
Melissa Beck 25:59
So aunt Viv worked for the warden, who’s the warden at the time
Aimee Wissman 26:03
The king of the castle, I mean, like, prisons are like five domes. So depending on what is a priority for the warden, and what is the priority for the major, who’s the head of security pretty much will dictate the whole overall climate of the place but we had a warden that was whatever, a warden, and she was like his personal assistant, and then her personal assistant and did a lot of like liaison kind of things between volunteers or people that would want to come into the institution for whatever purpose religious education, maybe are arts related, but she was also someone that you could access, like, if you had a grievance that was going nowhere, or, like, she first got to know me, because I could not get out of em unit, which is the maximum security unit, I couldn’t get my level reduced and I hadn’t had a security review. So I’m guiding her like, I’m not what happened, my security review, she comes to my cell and shows me the paperwork and is like, is this not your signature on this security review that happened whenever? And I was like, no, so like, I went through a little process with her that she helped me do and then I got my green shirt right away so.
Melissa Beck 27:33
Meaning your security level was reduced.
Aimee Wissman 27:35
And I got to leave that maximum environment and go to like, a unit where you have most of your day, you can be outside, you know, you’re just inside for count and sleep.
Melissa Beck 27:46
So what impression of aunt Viv did you have after that?
Aimee Wissman 27:51
Oh, she was kind of like hero status to me and also, I was like, this is a person that gets shit done.
Melissa Beck 27:57
Well, what about you Kamisha? What was your first experience with aunt Viv?
Kamisha Thomas 28:01
I think I was working in the chapel and the chaplain was like, oh, yeah, this is a person you need to know, you know, in here, and I started talking to her and she sent me a pass and showed me the equipment that they had that the men were using, which was an iMac computer that had final cut on it so that I could edit and a regular video camera and then eventually I became the video coordinator and my job in that prison was to record all of the events and things that happened within the institution.
Melissa Beck 28:40
Interesting, so two questions from that Kamisha, the first is what was your job in the chapel? I understand that you know, folks who are inside are assigned different jobs. I want to clarify like what you were paid a little bit about what you’re doing in the chapel. And then why don’t you want to record all this stuff? So that’s like a three pronger and Aimee feel free to jump.
Kamisha Thomas 29:08
Different type of questions multilayer so okay, I was making I think I want to say $18 an hour I mean not an hour a month.
Melissa Beck 29:25
I like the rate.
Aimee Wissman 29:34
Only a month, think of the honey bones you could have.
Kamisha Thomas 29:37
Oh my goodness. I’d have been nevermind.
Melissa Beck 29:48
Right which probably equals what like eight cents an hour.
Kamisha Thomas 29:52
Or like are less nor less.
Aimee Wissman 29:55
People that would do that kind of math.
Kamisha Thomas 29:56
I would be mad at them. Yeah, like why did you even put your effort into that, but right, okay, so $18 a month, and I was just in a chapel aid, so that just meant like I was there for the groups that were held in the chapel. If people wanted to go into the library, because there was a library, I would help them, you know, find what they were looking for, or whatever.
Melissa Beck 30:23
What kind of groups were held in the chapel,
Kamisha Thomas 30:26
The walking the 12 steps, that the place where Aimee, and I kind of like met, really?
Aimee Wissman 30:32
I mean, when you want to get out of yourself, you’ll go to the Jesus class. For sure, you will go, and the 12 step part was helpful. You know, it was very helpful. I’ve worked the steps a few times, and I don’t think it’s a bad process.
Melissa Beck 30:48
Like and I’m take I take a searching fearless moral inventory every day still. That’s interesting, of course, because Ohio, in addition with being like the birthplace of the rubber tire, is also the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous, so.
Aimee Wissman 31:07
And maybe alcoholism in general.
Melissa Beck 31:13
Constellation, all right, so thank you for that Kamisha, tell us a little bit about what programs aunt Viv brought into the prison and how you participated.
Kamisha Thomas 31:27
So we started out with like Antioch college doing inside outside, yeah, inside outside where we participated with college kids at Antioch and they brought us together and we talked about subjects, such as race, citizenship, intersectional.
Aimee Wissman 31:48
Feminism, that’s when I learned what that was. They brought WSO in.
Kamisha Thomas 31:53
Yep, the story chain. It was cool, I got to that story chain was a project there, where the women were allowed to get like little mp3 players and record themselves reading a book to their children.
Aimee Wissman 32:10
And then they also had like a community voices thing where we got like field recorders and we got to go around and interview people.
Kamisha Thomas 32:21
Mary Evans really took to that like a.
Melissa Beck 32:25
Who’s Mary Evans?
Kamisha Thomas 32:26
She’s one of our artists.
Aimee Wissman 32:28
And she has a number of like media endeavors but reentry stories was on WYSO so she’s worked for WYSO for a long time she’s now doing something I think that’s like maybe syndicated through NPR or NPR related in some way, so shes.
Melissa Beck 32:47
So WYSO so is the local public radio and.
Aimee Wissman 32:51
The Yellow Springs, public, it’s Antioch, adjacent.
Melissa Beck 32:57
So aunt Viv was bringing a pretty wide variety of programming into the prison. And at this point, it only seems fair to hear from Aunt Viv herself. Her name is now Vivian Stinson and she’s since retired from her position at the Dayton Correctional Institution. But she remembers Kamisha,and Aimee very well. Tell us a little bit about meeting Kamisha and learning about her life. What were your perceptions of Kamisha as a person?
Vivian Stinson 33:32
As a person when I met her well, Kamisha, actually sent me her resume and I got it, and she said, she told me all of her background and video production and editing. About with her all of her past experiences and what she’s done, that wasn’t a regular occurrence, Melissa, and I had been in this work in there for a good what was 15 more years? I’ve never received a resume from anybody saying that they want to work for me, so that right there Kamisha, is so driven, and so intelligent she’s so intelligent. And quit, and deep. I said, do you remember I told her I said, you remind me of Nina Simone and and her death, and that said, you just really do, and then of course, she was one of the facilitators for the art therapy project. And then also she was one of the writer directors of pins to pitchers, and when when Professor Shinola took who approached our warden at the time and said she wanted to do a story, of one of the ladies and I and then award and brought her straight to me because that was bluffing. And so the Misha was at the top of the list, I said, she’s gonna write a story, you know, this is her thing, video and storytelling, so obviously she was going to be in there. All because of her prior experience and accomplishments, and working with her and the other ladies and Aimee, I saw visually, and I could see the growth, you know, their self confidence grew and they were more driven, they were more enthusiastic, and yeah, realizing that they are worthy, and that they have self value, and even so inspire others after they did their work and with all of that art therapy project was so popular, everybody wanted to be in it, because of Kamisha, because of Aimee, they would do artwork and take it back to their housing units and and we had a waiting list for probably, we still didn’t get a chance to get everybody on that waiting list in the classes and whatnot. So I saw literally visually saw the change their thought process.
Melissa Beck 36:13
Yeah, I bet and I think again, it speaks to the power of art and if one is going to allocate parts of their budget for the arts, it seems like an absolutely wonderful use of funds. I would love to talk a little bit about Aimee, and your perceptions of Aimee, when you knew her at DCI.
Vivian Stinson 36:35
Right, I met AImee, there was something called administrative duty officer, each administrative staff has a day where we inspect the whole institution. And mine happened to be on a Saturday, I believe that time and I saw art on cards, like a zebra or a butterfly in there, there was a scripture written on it. And it was slid under me one of the ladies doors. And so I asked her, could I see it and I was like, my goodness, who did this this beautiful artwork. And they told me it was Aimee, and I said, I’ve got to meet her I just have to meet her, and I found her she’s like, oh, I just do it just to uplift the ladies by see they’re going through some things, I’ll give them the art of getting a piece of art, the scripture on it our positive affirmation, and I’ve said, wow and Aimee, she is so very intelligent, and so deep, and as she puts me in the line of Audrey Lord, who she really loves, she loves her so I saw I can understand the great person, she I’ve noticed change in her. I don’t think when they came into the art project, or they even thought about when they get out what they’re gonna do. And the more they worked with it, they were both Aimee and Kamisha, realizing that this is my purpose, this is one of my purpose. This is what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to get out there when I get out and be involved in the arts and that’s exactly what then. And that just blows me away you know, not everybody steps outside of that person and knows their path and follows that path without getting detour with family members or old friends. They knew their path, and they’re on it right now and I’m so proud of him, and so proud of all of them.
Melissa Beck 38:51
So that’s the perspective of Vivian the wardens assistant who met Aimee and Kamisha inside the prison and saw how they started to change their lives through art. After our last quick break, we’ll get back to hearing from Kamisha and Aimee.
Melissa Beck 39:39
So let’s roll into pins, two pictures. What was that?
Kamisha Thomas 39:44
That was in my opinion of supreme galactic alignment from the universe to catapult my personal self into success.
Melissa Beck 40:01
Tell me more.
Kamisha Thomas 40:02
Viv asked us to write stories, short stories and this professor is going to review them and we could possibly make a film. And one film turned into five films because the five of us myself, AImee, Jamie Oaks, Beverly Fears, Tyra Patterson, we all completed like the process and then she taught us how to translate a short story into a screenplay, a short film, script, take it over Aimee.
Aimee Wissman 40:44
Yeah, so we had a, it’s probably like a year long writing process. And then we started learning about pre production and directing techniques and we started looking at images of locations for our films that her team had, like kind of scouted and by her team, I mean, a couple of other young, you know, like DPS or directors and then a lot of students. So we got to select our own locations, we got to do rehearsals, with some of our actors, those that were able to come in, and work through, like a rehearsal process with them and then, oh, there was a film production that happened, we each were assigned a co director, and that person was responsible for kind of being our eyes and ears on location and then the Ohio State University supported some of the editing through the Wexner Center, so we got to meet Paul Hill and he kind of we called him Merlin, he was like a editing wizard. And we all spent hours, you know, editing with him and also each other’s like, the whole process was definitely collective in the writing process, everybody was having suggestions and feedback and ideas and editing process, it was the same and I think a lot of people had great outcomes, because they were able to like, you know, we had this cool like Think Tank vibe. And it was a really special experience because of that and because like we had some real community and escape while we were doing that project.
Melissa Beck 42:30
It sounds like I’m hearing lots of outside academic institutions coming into the prison lifting up creative practices, making room for them, and somehow working with the prison administration to get a green light on these activities that, so that’s aunt Viv?
Aimee Wissman 42:49
Yeah, and it without her it’s not that that climate no longer exists. Antioch hasn’t been going in there for years now, like art therapy is no longer poppin it’s all run through the gym now which is like the most.
Kamisha Thomas 43:03
Awful repulsive idea also to me.
Aimee Wissman 43:07
Yeah, like one person can really have an impact. And most of the the one person’s are like a major that’s like hot for taking away everything in not a miss Covington or not, but like yeah, she brought horses now she had a horse program. We didn’t have a participant we didn’t.
Kamisha Thomas 43:29
And equestrian program, she had an equestrian program. You couldn’t tell this lady she could name nothing, she was doing exactly what she wanted to do. And she waited until she knew that all of us were going to be released from there and be okay before she retired.
Melissa Beck 43:47
Your reflections on her really make her sound like an incredibly special person. Was she also involved with the art therapy that both of you are referring to? […]
Aimee Wissman 43:51
She’s the, that me and to Jamie’s wrote her a proposal, but she was on board as soon as we kicked her the idea because we were already loosely doing it back in the max unit. Because that shit was miserable, and when we would get out and like draw together other people would want to draw with us and.
Melissa Beck 44:19
So there were art supplies?
Aimee Wissman 44:21
No, I got those sent in thanks to mom. Right mom sent me some art stuff and we all started going in on that so then when Miss Covington did a walkthrough one day, we jumped on her and Cubby Cove as I used to call her back then what’s on it and was like write me a syllabus and we did. And then it was shortly after that, that it was like I can’t get out of Max and she was like, is this it? You know? And then right after that we started our therapy. We got reclassed she got us three class as artists, for our jobs, so we didn’t have to be the baker the board or whatever anymore, I was doing laundry at the time but.
Melissa Beck 45:08
So you were both participating slash teaching the art therapy.
Aimee Wissman 45:14
When pins picture started.
Melissa Beck 45:17
And what sort of supplies were you provided with? I guess was your mom still sending stuff in aunt Viv, by getting supplies?
Aimee Wissman 45:26
Yeah, by then we were writing like a budget, and we would have to get a bid, because then the prison, everything has to be bid through three vendors, and we would just buy a lot of things in bulk. But we did cool stuff, like we got our scrollbars to come in and we sculpted buss. And we did a lot of painting and like mixed media kind of techniques, but it was a lot more focused on the process of making something, you know, in the emotional connection and we had three different classes so, each class had, like a focus, like I remember mostly facilitating spiritual expressions, which was the one that was like, I don’t know, more, like doodling your way to heaven, and there was color of me, which was more focused on like dance and music, kind of performance art. And then, it was the one that Jaime taught and it was the one that was supposed to be more like, skill, basil. Like if you wanted to draw still life or something,
Melissa Beck 46:33
Right, and we’re like, this is how you do shadows. The conditions in the prison sound challenging, to say the least, was this artistic expression and creative practice an elixir, was it helpful?
Kamisha Thomas 46:50
Oh, it was the most helpful. We looked forward to attending, you know, the group or facilitating or even just gathering together, as we sometimes did not do an art or anything, just, you know, like, they’ve made it possible for us to, like, really hang out and have agency over how we were doing this you know.
Aimee Wissman 47:19
And the women would always say, like, there was always someone in every class that would say, while it was here, I forgot I was in prison.
Melissa Beck 47:26
But of course, they were still in prison, and Aimee and Kamisha, we’re never going to be satisfied with simply making life inside prison a little more tolerable. They wanted and still want real systemic change, change that forces us as a nation, to question the role of incarceration in the lives of so many, and the lives of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in the lives of those with substance use disorders and mental illness. They are dedicated to a world where there are real services that people can access, real support, true safety and well being and real community outside of prison walls. So next week on Called Declined, Getting Out. Aimee and Kamisha are about to transition back to their life with their families, start the returning artists guild and become professional celebrated artists. But first, they have to get out of prison.
Kamisha Thomas 48:31
My situation was crazy. Not any more crazy than, like say Aimee’s but it’s a lot it’s a process, it’s a process getting in, it’s a process getting out is like there is no, you can’t prepare.
Call Declined is the production of Lemonada Media in partnership with the Sozosei Foundation. I’m your host Melissa Beck. […] is our producer. Noah Smith is our audio engineer. Montez Mickens is our recording engineer. Music by Xander Singh. Story editing by Jackie Danziger. Additional support from Karen Powell, Don Gunderson Taylor and Maggie Croushore. Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Bazar and Dr. Cathy Fay at the cutting center for the history of psychology. Call Declined as presented by the Sozosei Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Otsuka the foundation’s goal is to increase access to mental health care in order to eliminate the inappropriate use of jails and prisons for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the United States. Learn more at SozoseiFoundation.org. The Sozosei Foundation extends special thanks to Aimee Wissman and Kamisha Thomas, visionary artists and the cofounders of the returning artists guild, whose creativity resilience and lift experience inspire us to build a world where mental illness is not a crime. To learn more about the guild, visit thereturningartistsguild.org. Follow Call Declined wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.