'Release' art exhibit speaks for women behind bars
Sharon Wiggins was 17 when she became involved in a botched bank robbery; a man was shot and Wiggins was sentenced to death row.
The Pennsylvania woman became the longest-time serving female in Pennsylvania; 42 years behind bars. In 2013, at the age of 65, Wiggins died of heart failure while still in prison, but she is forever immortalized by a portrait done by Philadelphia artist Mary DeWitt.
DeWitt's retrospective on women serving life sentences in Pennsylvania prisons is more than an exhibit, it's a chilling commentary on society.
This month, DeWitt's work, in an exhibition entitled "Release!" will be at the Lebanon Valley Council on the Arts at 734 Willow St. The exhibit is free and open to the public until the end of August.
The exhibit is sponsored by F.O.R.E., the Female Offender Re-entry Program of Lebanon County. FORE helps female inmates gain the life skills they need to re-enter society.
In 1988, DeWitt received a financial grant enabling her to teach art to women in prisons like Muncy and Graterford. At the time, DeWitt was the Director of the Arts and Humanities Program for the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
After getting to know the women she was teaching, and getting to know their stories, DeWitt was moved to make a record of their lives.
"It became apparent to me that the life they led (before becoming imprisoned) contributed to their crimes; many were battered, and it's heart-breaking to see them warehoused," DeWitt. "Here they are, they're a number now... and most of them had really difficult childhoods, a lot of abuse."
Before beginning her prison retrospective, DeWitt approached the administration of Muncy SCI (state correctional institute) with a question.
"I said 'could you select some prisoners that you think should be pardoned' to bring visibility to them, and awareness of their plight," DeWitt said. "Of course, this was before the prison industrial complex (took hold)."
She not only painted their portraits, she printed their stories in bold letters onto the portraits, transforming the paintings into true visual stories.
Then she went a step further, and recorded the women's voices, having them tell their stories in their own words.
Anyone can put in the website and listen to the prisoners talk about their lives, and tell what happened. The site is: http://marydewitt.net/MaryDeWitt/home.html.
Listening to the late Wiggins' recording, she tells how she got to an awkward age in her early teens, and started spending less time with her family, and more time on the streets. One mistake led to another, until the fatal incident in the bank changed her life forever.
"I was two years on death row, my first sentence I received was the death sentence... and then I was in solitary confinement for two and a half years," Wiggins says matter-of-factly, speaking in a soft voice. "I think what saved me from the horror of the situation was that I was so very young."
After the Supreme Court ruled that all prisoners on death row be removed, Wiggins got life imprisonment. During her time in prison, she graduated from Penn State, and then continued on with her education, garnering more degrees.
"It's sad work (doing the paintings) but we must let people know (about these women)," DeWitt said. "Like Wiggins; she evolved, she became a great soul."
Cyd Berger is another inmate captured on canvas by DeWitt.
Berger was a severely battered woman who fled from her husband. He found her and beat her, forcing her to return. When he committed a murder, she was forced to help him flee, according to the story on the painting. She told the court she helped him only because her own life was at risk, but the Superior Court of Pennsylvania decided that because she had returned to her husband before the killing, she had acted recklessly, and put her in prison.
Berger has been incarcerated since 1980.
"This is a humanitarian crisis," DeWitt said. "I try to bring their voices out; that means a lot. It's such a labor of love, because these women have served way too long."
On DeWitt's canvas, Berger looks out with confusion in her eyes.
"They have soulful eyes," said County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, as she surveyed the paintings.
Litz was one of the guests at the opening night of the exhibit.
DeWitt said it was tough; getting to know, and to like these women, hearing their life stories.
"It's definitely something you have to take a break from," Dewitt said. "It's their voices that kill me... hearing someone talk about what they went through. One woman told me how her grandmother was attacked by the KKK.
"My paintings were mostly done in 1990, and now it's 2015, and here they are, still warehoused. And now, prisons are more 'hard line,' they're more closed down," DeWitt added.
DeWitt is now focusing on how to present to the public the emotional and moral liability of sentencing children to life in prison.
"Pennsylvania has the largest population of juveniles sentenced to life without parole in the world," DeWitt said. "This is sad work, but they're totally invisible if we don't make them visible."