Dave Eassa understands the power of art.
As a young man growing up in Ellicott City, while some of his friends fell into drugs or went to prison, Eassa kept himself busy “skateboarding and making art,” he says.
At the same time, he felt passionate about helping his friends and others who were incarcerated.
After graduating from Maryland Institute College of Art, Eassa—now an accomplished artist and art teacher—petitioned the administration at Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup (MCIJ) to lead an art class inside the prison. It took six months of repeated proposals, but he finally got in.
“I always wanted to find something that I could do to help these guys,” Eassa says. “After the first class I taught, I knew I’d found it.”
Eassa, 24, will use his OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to expand on Free Space, the art program he started at MCIJ.
Free Space brings drawing, painting, screen printing, poetry and other forms of creative expression into the prison, providing a safe space for prisoners to tell their stories and improve the quality of their lives behind bars.
“Each class we come together and work through issues, learn skills and mentally escape the prison walls, even just for a moment,” Eassa says. The fellowship will allow Eassa to devote his efforts full time to the work, increase the number of classes he teaches at MCIJ and expand to other prisons, including the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW) and Dorsey Run Correctional Facility.
During Eassa’s lessons, he acts more as guiding participant than instructor, helping to bring out what’s already inside the 16 men who sign up for his two classes each week.
“I never tell them how I want them to do things,” he says. “I give them the environment so that they can figure out what’s important to them. I find it’s much more empowering when they figure out those things on their own. I gather all the ingredients for the participants and put them all in a pot and then they have to stir it for themselves.”
One of Eassa’s students, for example, initially signed up for the class and then didn’t show up for the first lesson because he was nervous about his skill level. Eventually, the student—a talented writer—started illustrating some of his prose. Then he progressed to making multiple paintings in between classes. “He said to me, ‘I honestly would never have thought I’d be doing work like this,’” Eassa says. “He was so blown away that he had this in him all along.”
Other prisoners use the pencils, charcoals, water colors and acrylic paints Eassa brings to tell their personal stories, illustrate their frustrations at being incarcerated and bring life to the dreams they envision after release.
“Most of these men just want to finish up their time and get back out there to become functioning members of the community,” Eassa says. “Unfortunately, they are the most forgotten about in our society. As soon as you go away to do a prison sentence, you’ve fallen off the face of the Earth, and they feel that. They need to know that there are people out there who believe that they can change and that they can do great things.”