What’s your number?

What's Your Number?
What’s Your Number?

Note: see video at bottom for ASL version with pix of some of the guys in prison artwork and ellen and nancys

so i havent been able to sleep for the past two nights

this is unusual for me – rare for me to be wide awake and restless.  sure ive been busy a doin’ running here and there and sure i got lots on my mind but this AWAKE is the type of awake that says – u have someTHING to do.  something specific.  so what i did last night is i just made to quick sketches and then was able to sleep.  Tonight (now morning) the blog calls.

So what is keeping me up?

some Deaf fellows in prison.  I only got to know ’em for a short while but clearly they have made their mark.  Some good souls (thank you nancy rourke, ellen mansfield, and kc for making this sojourn) and i went to a maximum security prison in western ny to do a De’VIA Deaf View/Image Artwork workshop with some Deaf guys in prison there.

I learned things.  Im still learning things – piecing together what i saw and what i feel.

Number one it feels sad / heavy to walk out FREE.  im not carefree about it.  im just like WOW! 14 years, 30 years, 59 years and counting.  it makes me weep

The guys were mighty sweet – nice, funny, engaged.

This i loved

1- how they helped out their brethren who don’t know ASL understand us and how they helped us to understand them.  I suspect we on the outside dont know the first thing about being collective.

2- how when nancy and ellen explained a few things about their work they were like – OH, Wow, that’s good

i especially loved when W figured out Ellen’s use of fish in her self-portrait was to represent how a fish as stared at in an aquarium – he came to that interpretation on his own but then looked at me and nodded his head in awe as if to say “she’s a clever one, that artist” and i was like yep she is

3. how when W asked Nancy Rourke to serve as his model signing his name sign of W from lower chin to near the ear (indicating a beard) – i thought he just wanted to be able to see it signed so he could then copy / portray it on his own face but instead he was painting red hair and i was like “wow you are painting Nancy!” and he said “yes” and i asked “why did you want to paint nancy signing your namesign W on chin?” and he replied “so she will be calling me name” then he signed it “W on chin W, W” as if someone was calling out to him and i thought that was super cool

4. when H had finished painting his self-portrait, he was struggling to incorporate his name sign (H moved from right to left on his chest) and having someone model the signing for him to look at wasn’t helping, nancy rourke decided to paint H with his name sign.  He was enthralled.  To see his own name.  He then added the H handshapes to his own artwork but asked to keep Nancy’s work for his cell wall.

im like a child5. when KC’s eyes glowed with enthusiasm when Ellen and Nancy held up each of their own works to discuss with the guys and when she chatted with each of them as they worked away.  I didn’t see her writing back and forth with one of the non-signing inmates but she did mention he wrote that he was like a child due to so many years being isolated.  “im like a child, im like a child” kept playing in my mind.  (this man has some serious art skill by the way) later i found the note and it still really just holds on to me


some things i didn’t love

1. that all the staff referred to the different folks in prison by their numbers – not by their names

2. that even thought they do have a few folks to sign with – there days do not have the same level of intellectual stimulation as the Hearing folks in prison do

3. that when they left after our good connection, robust handshakes, great interest in coming back – when it was time for them to leave the room as they passed by the window they all looked straight ahead – normally Deaf folks would look through the opening at us and flash a wave, a smile, something but nothing – just staring straight ahead – ahhhhhh “EYES FORWARD” – they probably learned that QUICKLY and HARSHLY

Count the Brushes - the guard counted the number of paint brushes we were bringing in had emphasized we must count and make sure we have the same number coming out (they dont want the guys using them as shank) - we had brought markers and pencils but all of the guys went for the paint and returned them all.  glad we brought them
Count the Brushes – the guard counted the number of paint brushes we were bringing in had emphasized we must count and make sure we have the same number coming out (they dont want the guys using them as shank) – we had brought markers and pencils but all of the guys went for the paint and returned them all. glad we brought them

– especially if they didnt hear it the first time or the second time or the third time…..

4. how mixed i felt as we left.  i felt good we had been there and connected but i felt – i cant find the word – i

felt …. im free and they are not.  that sucks (and yes i know that if they committed a serious crime they should be deprived of their freedom – i just know that correctional facilities RARELY correct and there is boat load of folks who have caused more death and mayhem than some of these folks – im talking about Corporations who are run by PEOPLE who do HORRIBLE things that cause some folks deaths and they NEVER see a single day of jail time) I also know that the Criminal Justice system leans toward white – they are more lenient and less likely to arrest, beat, incarcerate White folks than they are Black and Brown folks that that simply is NOT cool

we can argue that uneducated poor folks do more crime than educated middle and upper class white folks but really we should look at what types of crime do time and what types dont and we should look at why they system does so little towards REHABILITATION

5. how when Mighty Joe Y…. asked me “What is your number?” and i said “Huh?” and he said “oh i mean what is your name?” i was like whoa

Later when i thought about these artworks they made – three incorporated sign language – two used name signs and another was a painting of wife signing ILY.  these men wanted to be called by they name and known and important to someone on the outside.

Its an important question – What is your name?

One that we never think carries any weight or meaning – but for these men to be known by their name is so priceless that that is the dominant feature in the art.

a human by any other name ….

love seems to be the answer and im a studyin’ on it









4 thoughts on “What’s your number?

  1. Wow Patti….what an experience! I am so glad you guys are doing this. Will you be traveling from prison to prison? That would be a great idea to do from time to time for deaf prisoners in our state.

  2. Wow! Powerful. Insightful. Touching! I’m going to look at my state prison and see if there are Deaf inmates deprived of a name, individuality and the right to apply visual culture norms in their day in, day out life. Thank you for this thoughtful, touching and impactful glimpse at your experience.

  3. Art expression can set these people free, and you are doing a wonderful inspiration by explaining the ways one can be set free. I hope this becomes a program that is ongoing.

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