Founded in 2015 by London-based artist Nicola White, Art Reach is a charity which gives purpose and hope to death row inmates in the US, providing art materials, regular meaningful contact, and the opportunity to exhibit their work here in the UK. To support the valuable work that Nicola is doing to support some of America’s most ostracised citizens, and to recognise the human rights of death row inmates in the US and beyond, we will be dedicating the next few weeks to the artwork and writing of the men she supports at San Quentin Prison, California.
IN-SIGHT: STEVE CHAMPION (#C-58001)
Steve Champion (aka Adisa Akanni Kamara) is a former Crips gang member who grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He is a self-taught conversant in African history, philosophy, political science and comparative religion, and has been incarcerated for over 30 years. In 1995 he received an honorary mention for his short fiction in the Pen Prison Writing Contest, and in 2004 he won first place in the non-fiction category for his essay ‘His Spirit Lives On: George E Marshall.’ Steve is also the co-author of Afterlife — a death row anthology published in 2003 — and his poetry is featured in Voices from the Inside. His memorial poem for Stan ‘Tookie’ Williams, ‘My Brother is Gone’ was published early in 2006 on indybag.org and is also available from other sources.
How Long have you been on death row?
And how old were you when you arrived?
20 years old.
Can you tell us a little about the circumstances surrounding your detention?
Because my case is pending appeal I cannot say anything that might jeopardise that. I can say I was arrested, tried and convicted of two counts of murder.
And how do you feel about your sentence?
I feel it is unjust, inhumane and inherently barbaric.
The Faces I See Whenever I enter the Death Row yard I always try to see it from a different perspective, and after 34 years you would think I’ve seen it from every angle. But I haven’t… no one can. A person can spend almost an entire lifetime somewhere and come to think they know everything about the place and faces. Then one day, all of a sudden, like gunshots shattering the quiet calm, the person realises they don’t know the place or its faces at all. Death Row and its faces are like that... Read more
Can you explain some of the changes you’ve undergone since arriving on death row?
The changes are too numerous to elaborate here. That is a book by itself. You can say I’ve evolved, grown up, and matured here due to the pursuit of education and knowledge. The biggest change I’ve undergone is questioning and eliminating false constructs I once believed to be true. Practicing meditation and becoming introspective forced me to reshape my thinking and take stock of myself, which changed my attitude and philosophy about life.
You’ve done lots of writing since arriving on death row. Can you tell us a little about the creative process and the purpose that writing serves in your life?
Writing is like oxygen to me. It allows me to express and unearth a landmine of emotions stirring inside me and place them under the microscope for critical examination. My writing process can occur with just one word or phrase. Sometimes an engaging conversation triggers ideas, or a quiet moment of self reflection can evoke a bevy of images that I try to attach language to. Sometimes the energies of my body speak to me whilst Im asleep. I try to write what I see, hear and feel. Wherever the creative ideas emerge from, I am inspired and guided by the ancestors.
For Them For them, the ancestors who lay in unmarked graves. Who are part of oceans. Who braved the storms. Who stayed the course. Whose air we breathe. Whose consciousness resides in us. Who created cosmologies symbolising life and light... Read more
Having endorsed the benefits of holding everything of value without hands in your work, can you tell us what you’ve had to let go in order to survive?
I had to learn to temper my ego, and let go of anger, resentment, revenge and the past. Holding on to negative emotions is toxic in any environment but more so in prison, because many individuals here carry and harvest these emotions. I also had to let go of broken promises and dreams.
In what ways has being on death row affected your outlook on life and its meaning?
When something precious like freedom has been stolen from you it enhances a yearning to have it returned and restored. I have not become bitter or cynical but I am sceptical. Death has a way of teaching us how to fully live. So my appreciation for family and friends has grown exponentially. And the everyday freedoms people in the free world take for granted, like the freedom to open the fridge and pour myself a glass of orange juice takes on immense importance.
Courage Be courageous and have the courage to do what is right. Have the courage to point out what is wrong. Have the courage to take a stance. Have the courage to pick yourself up if you fail. Have the courage to be decisive. Have the courage to be fearless. Have the courage to make sacrifices... Read more
What was your greatest fear when you arrived and what is it now?
When I came to prison I had to override the notion that I wouldn’t be able to make positive contributions. My life would be wasted and meaningless. Not true. Since I’ve become aware I fear I wont be able to exercise my full potential as long as I am in prison.
And finally, how would you like to be remembered?
That I never stopped trying and fighting. That I did the best that I could with what I had to work with. And I hope it was enough to help somebody. Nelson Mandela once said, “A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”
The Inner Light There is a Latent but tangible inner light in everyone but our inner light can be submerged and stifled, making it hard to grow, difficult to shine and not easy to express yourself, if we don’t properly nurture it. When the inner light is suppressed it is like being submerged inside a hole and the only way to free yourself is to chisel away at what’s holding you down. What usually holds us down is the identification with our ego, our refusal to let go and our unwillingness to do the hard and messy work by looking at our own short comings, imperfections and demons and then reconciling ourselves with them... Read more
Steve’s most recent books, The Sacred Eye of the Falcon (co-authored with Anthony Ross and Stanley Tookie Williams in 2007) and Dead to Deliverance (published in 2010) can be purchased online via lulu.com and Amazon respectively. Those interested to find out more about Steve may also enjoy listening to the following podcasts that he made in prison: Overcome Fear, Sacred Place and Change.
Be sure to pop along to THE ART OF TRANSFORMATION: Redemption versus Death at the Old Deptford Cinema before the end of April to witness in full effect the many talents of San Quentin’s death row artists.