Jesse Krimes talks about how helping prison inmates establish positive identities is critical to preventing recidivism.
You know where it ends/Yo, it usually depends/On where you start. —Everlast, “What It’s Like”
ou may know of Jesse Krimes through his extraordinary piece, “Apokaluptein:16389067,” a complex combination of social realism and what Krimes describes as reflections on “heaven, earth, and hell where politicians, celebrities, and offenders serve as archangels, angels, and demons that establish ideals and artificial norms in our culture of celebrity worship, where impracticable role models are lionized in the media.” The 39-panel mural took three years to complete and was created by transferring New York Times images onto prison bed sheets with hair gel and plastic spoons.
Krimes was arrested in 2009 for possession of cocaine with the intent to sell. He had graduated cum laude from Millersville University of Pennsylvania a year earlier. Krimes had just learned his girlfriend was pregnant when an informant wearing a wire provided the evidence needed for his arrest. “I told her I was done selling drugs because I was about to have a child,” Krimes said. “A week later the FEDs raided my house.”
Krimes was denied bail. He refused to give prosecutors names or information, against the advice of two lawyers. At sentencing, the judge saw the discrepancy between the amount Krimes was carrying when arrested (157 grams) and what he was charged with (500 grams). The judge granted a 30-month variance from the 100-month sentencing guideline range, and Krimes was ultimately sentenced to 70 months in a federal penitentiary. “The judge said it was the largest variance his court had ever handed out,” Krimes said.
Before our interview, I immersed myself in Krimes’ art. Talent and devotion to his craft are just parts of Jesse’s story. I found it impossible at times to separate the work from the artist, the artist from the young man, and the young man from the ex-con. I judged him based on what I thought I knew: He was a college graduate using his prison narrative for catharsis, a drug dealer who couldn’t make it in the real world. I ignored the message in that Everlast song, and what it has always meant to me: We are here because we were there.
“I basically had to raise myself,” Krimes said when asked how his childhood influenced his self-preservation while incarcerated. “Before I even had a court date, I was looking at 20 years to life. I’ve felt that kind of hopelessness before. It throws you into a place where it’s not even about survival anymore. It’s about why bother?”
But Krimes did bother, and he did it under the confinement of what he calls a multimillion-dollar human storage system. How does someone who once slept on a cement floor with rats and cockroaches remain emotionally intact enough to care about art, or to care about anything? And why should we care?
Traci Foust: I feel like we should talk a bit about prison before art. Can you tell me about the drug charges, and what happened in your life to bring you to the point of incarceration?
Jesse Krimes: How do you to explain to someone why you’re selling drugs? I know you hear a lot of, “Well I’m from the street and I’m poor,” and that’s easily a very big part of it, but there’s usually more going on. I was doing these things. Of course I knew they were wrong and illegal, but it’s all about where you are in your life at the time. I felt terrible about myself. I wasn’t dealing with the issues I needed to deal with, and it all goes back to memories and things you cannot control. My mother was 16 years old when she had me. I was abandoned twice at ages where I had no skills to take care of myself. I never met my father. I grew up with different babysitters. The guy who raised me killed himself.
I was unhappy with my life and who I was, and seeing all of the things going on around me, I thought the only way to make friends was through material things. It’s like you come from nothing so you are nothing, and you begin to understand very quickly that if you have nice things—the right shoes, the right car—people are going to accept you.
TF: Tell me about when you were first arrested, and how the sentencing process works. I know that for drug charges a lot of jail time in the beginning is all about prosecutors getting as much information as possible.
JK: You mean snitching on other people?
TF: Yes. I see this process on TV shows, how it goes further than the interrogation room. Tell me what that was like.
JK: There is so much that the public never sees on TV. Prosecutors use all types of devices to get you to cooperate or to plead guilty. When you first come into the system they assume you have information that could be used to help them arrest someone bigger than you. They want to get to the big guys. They want you to name everyone. So threats and intimidation are the first things they try. They put you in the worst conditions, both physically and mentally. I was in prison right after my arrest, and when I wouldn’t cooperate, they sent me to another prison with dirt floors, lockdown 22 hours a day, rats and cockroaches all over the place. You’re basically an animal.
TF: But you didn’t give names. Was there some point when you thought you had made the wrong decision?
JK: No. I questioned myself, sure, but I decided I had to take responsibility and not involve anyone else. It was my decision. I have a family and I didn’t want to put other people in jeopardy because I screwed up. I decided I was going take whatever I had coming to me. I was depressed and terrified, I even had thoughts of suicide. But at the same time I knew it was the right thing to do.
I had no real information on my case or my rights. They told me I was facing 20 to life because I had a prior. But if they don’t file the prior in court, which they rarely do because it’s just a ploy to get you to talk, then it’s not a real threat. But you’re in there and you don’t know that. I just thought, “Well, I’m never getting out.”
TF: At some point they were slapping charges on you that didn’t exist, right?
JK: I was caught with 157 grams of cocaine, and I’m certainly not trying to make light of that. But when I wouldn’t cooperate, they used hearsay evidence, like so-and-so said they saw me with 10 kilos and a friend of so-and-so said 20 kilos. Hearsay evidence won’t stand up in a state court of law, but in a federal court it counts. Of course you have no idea of all this going in, and they know that. They know you’re scared shitless. They immediately raised my drug weight to 50 kilos.
TF: You said you sold drugs because you wanted to be accepted. When you got to prison, you went out of your way not to be accepted. Did that ever prove to be a dangerous decision?
JK: I kept to myself a lot, but my artwork was a medium that facilitated communication. Other inmates were interested in what I was making. People would ask me a lot of questions about what I was doing, and that started conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. So in a way, that process humanized people to me and humanized me to other people.
TF: So you didn’t have to pick a gang or put on this tough guy act for your own protection?
JK: A lot of that is a misconception about prison, and it’s one way that people on the outside can view inmates as animals in a pack or a number without a face. There’s a certain amount of the “tough guy” dance. There are gangs. We were all that way at first. But my artwork broke a lot of barriers and I began to have real, honest conversations with these guys.
TF: Like what?
JK: Almost every conversation turned to family. People started asking if I could do portraits or tattoos. It was always, “Can you draw a picture for my kid?” Or they would tell me about their mother that just passed away or a father who has cancer or “It’s my brother’s birthday, can you draw something for him?” Having those conversations wouldn’t have come easily if the artwork wasn’t involved.
TF: There are some people who will see the artwork you created while in prison and think being an inmate is all about going to school and learning a trade on taxpayers’ money. What are your thoughts on that?
JK: These classes are funded through profits made off the inmates as well as money that family members send. It’s called the inmate trust fund. Let’s say I make a phone call and it costs $3.45. I’m not paying a phone company. That money goes directly to the prison. Or if an inmate buys commissary items like Cup-a-Soup, it’s marked way up and that is used to pay for classes. But to even call them classes or rehabilitation programs is pretty much a joke.
TF: Can you elaborate on that? Isn’t the point of the prison system rehabilitation and helping inmates become productive members of society when they are released?
JK: You would think that’s the point, and at one time that might have been true, but the prison system has basically evolved into a storage system. They offer classes so people can learn to drive trucks, work a forklift, even the art and hobby classes. The prison gets funding for everyone who signs up for these classes, but most of them are taught by other inmates so they’re not staffed by anyone who is paid or certified to teach the classes. You might learn all about trucks and forklifts but you’ll never be accredited or presented a certificate that will count as anything on the outside.
TF: What about GED or college courses?
JK: I was in two different federal correctional facilities where you could take GED classes to get your high school diploma, but there was no one to administer the actual GED test. And since the prison gets funding for the headcounts of the people who sign up, the idea is to keep the inmates in there as long as possible. These guys are interested in learning because they want to better themselves and have a chance to actually get jobs when they go home. But half the time the instructor, who isn’t even an accredited teacher, never shows up, so it’s inmates tutoring each other, going over material they’ve already studied for years. I know guys who just gave up once they realized they were never going to take the actual test for the certificate. But if you don’t take the classes, the prison doesn’t receive funding, so the prisoners get punished for that. They get their good time taken away.
TF: What is good time?
JK: For every year you have good behavior and you don’t have any incident reports, they take 54 days off of your sentence. Not showing up for a class you’ve already taken three or four times is considered a negative incident.
TF: Any suggestions for changing that process?
JK:I think change begins with seeing inmates as people. I know that’s difficult. We are talking about criminals and yes they are in there for a reason, but if you stop to consider everything about how someone gets charged with a crime, the way the prosecutors will do anything to keep someone incarcerated for as long as possible, even if that means fabricating charges like they did with me, maybe it will be easier to see these guys as people who need direction, who need to be seen as a real people, because once you are in, that element is taken from you and it’s hard to understand unless you have been there. The process needs to change from inside.
TF: So if someone is an accredited teacher or a counselor and volunteers to teach classes or help in some way, it’s not allowed?
JK: I have never seen that. Unless you are an employee they don’t let people from the outside just walk into a prison and start teaching a class. I know there are a few programs like Books Behind Bars, but there’s no real interaction going on.
TF: Tell me a little bit about how your art classes helped change that.
JK: I took an interest and treated the inmates like real people, not just numbers in a class. I tried to make sure my art classes provided something real, not just a persona of caring. There was always a type of drawing class but nothing that would give anyone substantial skills. Once the guys found out I could explain the drawing and sketching process, they set up a class for me and got me materials and got the room ready. I began teaching them to draw in a way where they could do it from what they were feeling and experiencing. Then my friends on the street helped me organize an exhibition of their work, so it gave this outside validation to what they were doing. It was a major transformation. People began to consider themselves artists and not just some guy who screwed up his life.
TF: When you say, “People began to consider themselves artists and not just the guy who screwed up his life,” that sounds like real rehabilitation.
JK: Exactly. How can you change or rehabilitate anyone without approaching them in a positive manner? Nobody seems to be doing that. It’s like, “You did this wrong, now let’s correct that.” So now they’ve got this label. “You’re a manipulator, you’re dishonest.” They try to classify the faults so they can get you to understand what you’re doing wrong, but most everyone in prison already knows this. And these are things some of them have heard their entire lives. That’s a big reason why they are there.
The way you help people better themselves is to say, “Okay, what are you really good at? What are your strengths? What are you interested in? Well that’s what we’re going to work on.” Just because a person has spent their whole life in poverty and has committed a crime doesn’t mean they don’t have something real inside of them. So you tell them, “In the process of discovering your talent we can also focus on the things that hold you back.” All of the so called rehabilitation programs approach correction from reinforcing the negative labels. It’s disgusting.
TF: Tell me in more detail how you witnessed this among prison workers.
JK: I voluntarily went to a 500-hour Residential Drug Abuse Program. While in the program, I attempted to organize an art class for the guys on the unit because some of them were not comfortable venturing out into general population. When I approached the coordinator on behalf of the other inmates, the head psychologist asked me, “What are you getting out of it?” Like I wanted money or good time or something. The way he responded let me know that he did not believe in his own program. He automatically assumed a negative angle. It’s sad really. You’ve got psychologists who do not believe that people can change. Text books can’t teach what it takes to believe in people who have never had anyone believe in them before. That requires real life experience and some sort of empathy.
TF: It sounds like a lot of this comes from a place of fear that these individuals will actually change. If so, why is that?
JK: The prison system is one of the biggest money makers in this country. UNICOR used to be a government program that made uniforms for the military or sheets for prisons. But UNICOR recently privatized and they are competing with other corporations in places like Mexico and Bangladesh and all these garment factories. UNICOR brings in something like $780 million a year. Out of that they pay inmates around 6%. Not a single dime of this money goes toward any kind of class.
Anyone who wants to make a change in the system should research UNICOR. They’re using this inmate population against other corporations in the private sector. It’s set up to disenfranchise a certain population. I think Michelle Alexander (a civil rights litigator and legal scholar) is dead on in what she says about mass incarceration and slave labor. I also think Obama is beginning to take baby steps in setting prison policy. UNICOR is a very large institution, and it’s going to take a lot of voices and a lot of time.
TF: But many of these prisoners will be released at some point.
JK: Exactly, and there’s only one way to real rehabilitation: empathy. But it’s easier to judge a situation that you’ve never experienced. So if you cannot empathize, then yes, think about the population that will be back in the outside world. Ninety-five percent of these inmates will be released. They’re coming home. You send them in for something that is justified, and you punish them, but that should only be one part of it. If you just punish them, you only reinforce their anger and frustration. You victimize and dehumanize people who already lived with those labels for so long, and now they’re home, they have no skills, nothing positive to fall back on. The system didn’t treat the problem, they strengthened it. This is as good as guaranteeing that these people will commit another crime and create new victims.
TF: What was it like to be released?
JK: Wow, I don’t even know where to start with that. It was scary. It felt very surreal. There were many times I was confused and depressed. In one sense you expect to feel liberated and you do. In another sense you feel totally lost. Most inmates, once they leave prison, go straight to a halfway house where the rules and time restraints are very similar. In some ways that’s OK for the transition, but for self-esteem and sense of worth, you still feel like you’re not a part of the outside. And then in my case, I was on home confinement for six months after the halfway house.
TF: Aside from some of the political movements to help prison conditions, how can people make a dent in all of this?
JK: I know I’m using this word repeatedly but it really is about empathy. That whole “It takes a village” idea—that is really where you begin. Help the kid who is less fortunate, praise his strengths, and give him reason to believe he is a good person. It’s so much about seeing the complete story of a person and trying to really understand what that’s like. Compassion and understanding completes a circle, you know. It’s strengthens the very core of a person who feels horrible about life, about themselves.
TF: That reminds me of the Everlast song, “What it’s Like.”
JK: Yeah, I know that song. And it’s true. It’s not an easy thing to practice, not judging people, but think of what we can accomplish if we step back and say, “That person has a story and maybe I should try to understand it.” Because in the end, we are all responsible for each other.
The photo accompanying the article is Krimes’ “Apokaluptein:16389067” as displayed at Goldilocks Gallery in Philadelphia.